CINEMA: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

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Michael Jackson’s This Is It (2009, directed by Kenny Ortega, 112 minutes, U.S.)

BuskirkByline_REV.jpgBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC For Michael Jackson, dropping dead last June was just the capper to the worst decade of his long career.  His last album dropped in 2001 and was the first of his solo records to be perceived as a failure since Off The Wall sent his career into the stratosphere in 1979.  His interview with Martin Bashir in 2003 (broadcast on ABC as Living With Michael Jackson) seemed like a perverse attempt to grab the public’s attention, if not with his music then by parading his twisted psychological state.  From there he fended off a second round of child abuse allegations, fled the country for Bahrain, nearly lost Neverland in a financial collapse, and was frequently spotted looking frail and dazed in public. The news that he was making a comeback this year with fifty lives shows was treated with skepticism, and for many a sinking feeling that things were unlikely to go off as planned.

They did not of course but This Is It, the rushed documentary compiled from the weeks of Jackson’s rehearsals from this past Spring, show the troubled entertainer in surprisingly solid shape, teasing just a little more magic out of his over-exposed hits and giving us an engaging behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a major pop show.  Looking alarming thin at times, it’s still a question whether he could charge through this spectacle night after night but this in-process run-through gives every indication that Jacko may have retired from the concert stage at a career high point.

Early leaked footage was not as promising, showing a tentative Jackson walking through routines and barely singing along.  Not so here; cutting back and forth through multiple takes (and a range of fancy outfits) This Is It is able to maintain a high level of energy that was probably not present at any single rehearsal.  Jackson looks quite at home standing twenty-feet tall on the movie screen, the first shock when he hits the stage is that he had never had his own concert film before.  The hits keep coming, all with embellished arrangements that allow extra dancing but there is a nice tension in not knowing when each performance may break off, as they occasionally do, in order to fine-tune the band or one of the posse of on-stage dancers.  As entertaining as the show appears, with robot spiders, some eye-catching sets and flames that chase the performers around the stage, it is an extra thrill to see the last minute decision-making that Jackson and the ever-present director Kenny Ortega are forced to do.  Jackson, ever the perfectionist, might have preferred the seams not to show but is is much more revealing to see his process at work.

The band would have probably gotten overlooked in all the stage fireworks so it’s interesting to see this group of mostly middle-aged African American men as they try to decipher Michael’s awkward, poetic directions.  It is apparent that one of the things Michael sacrificed for his career in show biz was an education and when he tries to communicate with the band and Ortega you can see the difficulty on their faces as they try to translate Jackson’s grammatically obtuse demands.   He’ll often end these comments with a phrase like “”with love, with l.o.v.e.” in an seeming attempt buffer his role as a taskmaster.

While the run-through is engagingly rough, the filmed segments of the show are surprisingly big-budgeted little gems, including the graveyard-set variation on the Thriller video, with what would have propelled 3-D ghouls floating above the stage.  As fun as these riffs on his past hits are, there is a sadness that here is where Jackson’s career was at the age of fifty.  Much like the mid-seventies Beach Boys of the “Endless Summer” years, he seems done treading new musical ground, intent to instead deliver some well-packaged nostalgia. “Play it the way they’re used to hearing it” Jackson tells one band member.  Thriller cemented Jackson place in musical history but it was also a straight-jacket: all his follow-ups were gentle shake-ups of the formula, attempts to “do it again” that inevitably fell a bit short.  Nonetheless, it is a marvelously tailored, rhinestone encrusted straight-jacket that Jackson created, and no star on the horizon is likely to equal its impact should they dare to try it on for themselves.

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