Michael Jackson's This Is It will offer Jackson fans and music lovers worldwide a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the performer as he developed, created and rehearsed for his sold-out concerts that would have taken place beginning this summer in London's O2 Arena.
Chronicling the months from April through June, 2009, the film is produced with the full support of the Estate of Michael Jackson and drawn from more than one hundred hours of behind-the-scenes footage, featuring Jackson rehearsing a number of his songs for the show. Audiences will be given a privileged and private look at Jackson as he has never been seen before.
In raw and candid detail, Michael Jackson's This Is It captures the singer, dancer, filmmaker, architect, creative genius and great artist at work as he creates and perfects his final show.
'This Is It' is a weird movie to review. The first question, of course, is what, exactly is 'This Is It?' Well, it's a concert movie, sort of. And it's a documentary, also sort of. It's both magical and morbid, kind of like looking at a half-finished pyramid with the dead pharaoh's sequin-covered socks sticking out.
'This Is It' was culled from more than 100 hours of backstage footage of Michael Jackson's This Is It concert series, which, had he lived to see it, would have been a massive, 50-date spectacular in London's O2 Arena. It's comprised of footage of these dress rehearsals, which are in various stages of development, as well as interviews with principles (smokin' hot background dances, choreographers, lighting people) during the audition period. This is nice because it rescues the movie from any post-mortem sentimentalism. There's no "he was the most amazing entertainer that ever lived, this is a real tragedy," there's only "I am thrilled at this opportunity."
The rougher aspects of the tour, like sections that would have been completed with sophisticated hydraulics and whatnot, are seen as computer generated renderings. One involves a giant robotic figure made out of LCD screens that would then open up, with Michael falling out of its cavernous chest. Another had a bulldozer coming out of the stage, to stop inches from Michael Jackson, as he concluded "Earth Song," his histrionic plea to help the planet. We also get to see Michael and director Kenny Ortega (the mastermind behind the 'High School Musical' trilogy) film a new version of "Thriller," filled with all new graveyard spooks, which would have dazzled in 3-D.
It ends up being a pretty good approximation of what the concert would have been, even with the mock-ups. Where something falls short, like, say, watching one of the greatest dancers of all time sliding around on stage in oversized Ed Hardy sweatpants, you get a nice supplement in the form of his various tailors talking about how his costumes would have been out of this world. So by the end of the movie's nearly two hour running time, you may not have seen Michael Jackson's final concert, but you've got a damn good idea.
While Michael both looks, dance-wise, amazing and sounds as good as he's ever sounded, there are a few uneasy moments in the film's running time. Occasionally he sounds aloof and overmedicated, and his frail, thin body is enough to make you shudder, even if his dance steps are pulled off flawlessly. You feel you're watching a man on the edge of a precipice. Could pulling off this string of concerts have brought him back from the personal and professional torture he'd put himself through for the past ten years? Probably not. You can tell this is a man too far gone. But seeing all that sparkly hope that he and his crew exude in this film makes you wish it could have happened.
And that's where the main conflict comes from while watching 'This Is It' - it's the fascination, the sheer wonderment at the audacity and imagination of many of the set pieces Michael had concocted. One has him inserted into an old gangster movie, which segues into "Smooth Criminal." Another, seemingly inspired by the "Rhapsody in Blue" section of 'Fantasia 2000,' for "The Way You Make Me Feel," featured dancers climbing down from a digitally augmented building site. The "Thriller" stuff is impressive and all but it would have been even more so had there really been dancers getting sprung out of fresh graves on the stage.
But then there's that other part of your brain that creeps in, the one that says, "Wait a second, these are the last few months of a deeply troubled man's life." And, truthfully, it is pretty ghoulish. But most of that ghoulishness has been pushed aside to focus on the spectacle. This concert would have been a cranked-to-11, fireworks-and-pyro show that might not have restored his artistic credibility, but could have at least reminded the world of his boundless imagination and willingness to please (on the largest scale possible).
As it stands it’s more like a weird time capsule; a strangely intimate and affecting look at that same troubled life. Introspective it's not. What it is, is telling. The moments when he scolds and corrects his huge staff with platitudes and nonsense about "love" are the most telling. Since his own father beat the shit out of him when he screwed up, he's going to respond to imperfections with stern words and a cuddly delivery. Even his dogged perfectionism couldn't get in the way of that.
It should also be noted that the movie is a masterpiece of editing more than anything else, and when it's really on fire, like when Ortega looks at one performance through various rehearsals, the movie splitting into multiple screens, then you understand the real power of the movie (and the man). Still, the movie is about ten minutes too long. And some of the things that were included (like that "Earth Song" moment, which includes a little girl running through a computer-generated rain forest) seem like they were included more out of obligation than necessity.
'This Is It' is strange, for sure, and strangely compelling. I don't think I've ever seen a concert movie quite like this. It doesn't answer any questions about the fabled performer, but as a fleeting glimpse at his last attempt at artistic genius, it's a hell of a show.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB Blu-ray disc automatically starts. It is quickly followed by a trailer for a torturous looking comedy called 'Grown-Ups,' which, even though it doesn't even hit theaters until June 25th, 2010, is advertised as "Coming Soon to Blu-ray and DVD." Well, I suppose. But it depends on what your definition of "soon" is.
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 1.78:1) is quite good, all things considered. And by "all things considered," I mean that the footage that makes up the majority of this movie was never really meant to be seen by anybody. At the very least this footage was supposed to have been used internally, to tweak dance moves or certain segments in-house (or possibly for behind-the-scenes material on an eventual DVD or Blu-ray that would accompany the concert film version of the tour). The footage here is a mixture of standard def and high definition. And, still, it looks pretty damn good.
The high definition footage generally looks great - lots of detail, skin tones look good, colors really pop, even when the action takes place against somewhat black backdrops (like the unfinished stage at the Staples Center). Still: the intent to showcase what this show COULD HAVE BEEN really comes through. This is especially true in some of the pre-rendered segments, like the little girl in the lush, eye-popping green rainforest, which looked flawless. Ditto the aforementioned new versions of "Smooth Criminal," with the intentionally grainy, old movie look and the ghoulish fantasia of "Thriller."
When it switches to standard definition, it's definitely noticeable. Not only does it just generally look crummier, but it's also riddled with obnoxious technical issues like aliasing and jagged edges. But at the same time, it's not entirely damnable. It never jolts you out of the movie in any real way, and you have to cut it some slack considering that this was all they had to work with. Also, the exceptional nature of much of the high-def footage more than outweighs the shaky standard definition stuff.
Overall, this is a very solid transfer, especially when considered as an intriguing, never-meant-to-be-seen artifact. You won't be disappointed.
Another thing that lets the occasionally below-average video slide is that, as intriguing as the visuals are, the music is what really carries this movie, and the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is profoundly stunning.
Quite obviously, when the classic jams kick in for the big musical numbers, it is beyond reproach. Everything just sounds amazing – from the backing band to Michael's on-point vocals. The music will fill any room, no matter what your surround sound set-up looks like. Just hearing those opening notes to "The Way You Make Me Feel" will send shivers up your spine. It's very hard to not listen to this movie and want to dance, dance, dance.
But the other parts of the movie – hearing Michael talk to his backing band about something he wants tweaked, or the clapping that erupts after the backup dancers stop what they're doing just to listen to him rehearse, are equally crisp and clear. Overall, it makes for an absolutely stunning sonic experience.
Even though the DTS-HD audio track is the only audio option, well, it's the only one you'll need. There are also subtitles in English, English SDH and French.
Sony has provided a fair number of interesting extras on this 'This Is It' disc, although much of what was speculated about the sheer abundance of footage (some people clocked it in at around 100 hours) is nowhere to be found here. One sequence, which was edited out of the movie shortly before the film's release (and can be seen in the theatrical trailer) shows the director and dancers joined in a group prayer, after learning of Jackson's hospitalization (no one knew that he was already dead at the time). This was, at the time of the film's release, said to for sure be included on the home video release. It isn't. In fact, there aren't any deleted scenes. This, coupled with the fact that there were three 3D sequences, makes me think that there could be a super deluxe-o-rama version coming out, probably around the time that those 3D televisions start hitting the market. I very much doubt that this is it, in terms of home video releases.
Michael Jackson's 'This Is It' is a fascinating music documentary, not really a concert film and not really a behind-the-scenes piece. It's a horse of a different color, one that's incredibly compelling and beautiful just the same. To see Michael Jackson, a pop legend, still bring the vocal chops and the dance moves that made him a phenomenon decades earlier, so close to his demise, is both heartening and heartbreaking, but this is still a wonderful, macabre document that remains compelling. With above average video, superb audio and a whole host of special features, this is a highly recommended disc, through and through.