Michael Jackson: This Is It
- Street Date:
- January 26th, 2010
- Reviewed by:
- Drew Taylor
- Review Date: 1
- January 25th, 2010
- Movie Release Year:
- Sony Pictures
- 111 Minutes
- MPAA Rating:
- Rated PG
- Release Country
- United States
The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
'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 Video: Sizing Up the Picture
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.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
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.
The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff
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.
- Staging the Return (HD, 40:46) This huge documentary is the centerpiece special feature on the disc, which can be viewed broken up into two smaller sections - 'The Adventure Begins,' and 'Beyond the Show.' This really covers the entire process, from how the 50-date concert came to be, to what it would have ended up being, to Michael Jackson's persistent commitment to perfectionism. This is mostly talking head stuff, combined with footage from the movie and other stuff. While not engaging as it potentially could have been, this is definitely well worth watching if you're a fan of the film or if you're curious how the whole thing came together. The movie is wonderfully in-the-moment but if you want some context, you can watch this.
- The Gloved One (HD, 15:13) This might be my favorite special feature on the whole disc. Zaldy, the young lead costume designer on the tour, describes each costume and what made it unique. There's a brief bit in the actual movie that talks about the costumes and you see some of them for a couple of seconds. Here we get a few minutes with each piece, and the amount of work that went into these things is just mind-boggling. You've really never seen anything like these costumes before and Zaldy is an interesting and affable guide. My favorite costumes are a toss up between the new "Billie Jean" piece that had tiny lights throughout the pant leg and glove that could strobe on command, or the awesome update of the "Thriller" jacket. Priceless. This is required viewing, as far as I'm concerned.
- Memories of Michael (HD, 16:19) Yes, this is sad and it's nice to hear everyone talking about their experiences with Michael but the absence of this kind of schmaltzy nonsense from the body of the movie is what made the movie so essential. While this isn't a bad little doc by any stretch of the imagination, it is kind of a letdown and betrays something about the movie. Still, without this kind of piece, people would have probably called the disc "heartless" or something.
- Auditions: Searching for the World's Greatest Dancers (HD, 9:50) One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the failure of the 'This Is It' tour to materialize is all those talented background dancers who thought that this tour was going to be their big break. This is a look at the audition process for those dancers and while this wasn't the most engaging feature for me, personally, I'm sure there are some out there who will eat this up.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:31) Not great.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
There are some nice Blu-ray-exclusive special features on this disc, the least impressive of which is the stupid Movie IQ feature which is becoming more and more prevalent on Sony releases without getting any better.
- Movie IQ I'm going to refer once more to my description of this special feature from my review of 'The Quick and the Dead' (the first disc to be saddled with this nonsense). The only difference is that the Movie IQ puts you in touch with the 'This Is It' playlist. If you don't know what songs Michael performs in this movie, then you must have spent the last few decades living under a rock. Anyway: "This is a special feature that is debuting on a host of Sony releases and is really, very dumb. According to the box, it's "real time-in movie information about the cast, crew, music and production via BD-Live." Yes, this is a BD-Live feature, and from the BD-Live menu you can watch a little preview of how the system works, but it's so simplistic I will just explain it here. It's kind of like a U-Control thing. There's a small icon in the right hand corner. When you hit it, you can access various information that's scene specific - who is in the scene you're watching, what the music cue is called, and any trivia they throw your way. The "trivia" is asinine and can be brought up on any fan site and the most annoying thing is that they don't tell you when there are new facts available in the little widget, so you just have to keep checking it, like you're checking your email, until you read something that you find remotely interesting. These moments are few and far between and this dopey special feature does nothing for the BD-Live cause. It's just a waste of time and not recommended in the slightest."
- Smooth Criminal Vignette (HD, 3:58) This is the complete "Smooth Criminal" short film that you see bits of in the final film, complete with 5.1 sound. It's pretty cool indeed. Recommended viewing, for sure.
- Thriller Vignette (HD, 3:51) Even better than the "Smooth Criminal" piece is this one for "Thriller," which borrows liberally from the original short film by John Landis as well as the Haunted Mansion from the Disney theme parks (it's pretty obvious). To have this open the show, in 3-D no less, would have been beyond phenomenal (it would have concluded with dancers, dressed in their finest zombie garb, spring out of the stage – Michael would have emerged from underneath a giant black widow spider).
- Making Smooth Criminal (HD, 11:08) And this brief doc is about the arduous process of updating "Smooth Criminal" for the 21st century using cutting edge technology to insert Michael into a string of classic gangster movies. This was the only short film out of the three to not be in 3-D.
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.
- BD-50 Blu-ray Disc
- 1080p/AVC MPEG-4
- English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround Sound
- English SDH
- Staging the Return
- Thriller Vignette
- Smooth Criminal Vignette
- Making "Smooth Criminal"
- The Gloved One
- Memories of Michael
- Auditions: Searching for the World's Best Dancers
- Theatrical Trailer
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