When I told my father that I’d be reviewing This Is It, he said, “Michael Jackson was such a perfectionist—would he want rehearsals to be released to the public?” and “aren’t those who stand to benefit from this movie the same people who exploited him his whole life?” This coming from a 60-something white man, mind you, no particular fan of MJ (though his kids sure were, wearing out our vinyl copy of Thriller on a Crayola™-brand record player, singing every word to every song while trying in vain to moonwalk). This spoken by the killjoy who, 27 years ago, flatly refused to drive us to Houston on a school night to see the Victory tour. My point is, even my Dad is schooled in the Michael Jackson liturgy, his dual narrative of genius and tragedy, and feels a measure of investment in it; MJ’s that deep.
I arrived about 10 minutes late to the press screening, not knowing that it served also as the sneak-preview screening and the free-passes screening. I should’ve guessed — what did I think, that it’d just be six or seven grouchy journos slumped in a dinky side-auditorium? Hell, no: An enormous auditorium strained to contain hundreds: Well-heeled middle-aged couples holding hands next to groups of office ladies already misty-eyed abutting throngs of ’80s-wear-sporting teenage hipsters flanking leather daddies sitting next to young families with small children, the full spectrum of racial possibility—hell, nearly the whole species— representin’. I may or may not have seen two nuns in habits. I think there was a sherpa. I did for sure see at least 15 people—not always who you’d think, either—sporting single sequinned gloves. Gospel truth: The only reason I got a seat was that an obliging mom scooped her toddler onto her lap and smiled at me.
Frankly, the critical reception of This Is It is absolutely immaterial to its success, to either its status as profit engine (as I write, it’s already raked in $23,908,532, on its third day of release), or its primacy as a pop-cultural phenomenon; the importance of This Is It stands contingent on film writing about as much as the suction power of a blackhole depends on that English guy from the Dyson vacuum cleaner commercials.
This occurred to me as the crowd erupted into spontaneous, sustained, and openhearted applause with the very first frame of the film. For 112 mesmerizing minutes, the crowd engaged with This Is It as a live performance. Five-year-olds boogied in the aisles to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,’” grownups gasped and giggled at the new “Thriller” opening video montage, and met the final notes of the keenly elegiac “Human Nature” — Michael’s soaring, delicate, scale-tripping, bell-clear cry of “why?”— with a collective murmur of tenderness and sorrow. When Michael told his dancers “God bless you,” several audience members cried, “God bless you too, Michael!” And every time MJ said “I love you” to somebody — to the enthralled young dancers watching him belt out “The Way You Make Me Feel,” to the hardworking musicians, even (a little tiredly, from a cherry picker) to director Kenny Ortega, people all around me reciprocated loudly and immediately. WE LOVE YOU TOO!
This was church.
I wonder what effect This Is It would have on non-MJ fans. There were numbers that left me not cold, but un-swooning : “Earth Song” is over-long, ponderous, and preachy, heavy-laden with its video setpiece, gorgeously produced, of a bulldozed-Amazon-rainforest. And the video for “They Don’t Care About Us” uses a vast, computer-assisted army of stormtrooperesque dancers to baffling effect, weirdly approaching Leni Riefenstahl territory (what was MJ’s fascination with military emblems, anyway, the eapulets and medals and ten-hut choreography?).
But even non-Jacksonites, I can’t help but think, would be moved by Michael Jackson’s unassailable dedication (“this is why we rehearse!” he offers gently, several times, to dancers who’ve missed steps or musicians who’ve missed cues), by his uncanny musical instincts, his earnest and evident desire—no, need—to put on a good show, and by his (OK, psychologically dubious) belief that his art could help heal the world (if not himself).
Even more, it’s pretty impossible not to marvel at the gyroscopic miracle of Michael Jackson’s familiar-yet-otherworldly body in motion; the fluency and precision of his physical vocabulary still retains the power to drop your goddamn jaw. He was in good voice, too, his high register as ethereal as ever, the growls still ferocious in their way, a stark contrast to Whitney Houston’s recent Oprah appearance, in which her post-magnificent instrument appeared denatured, sanded-down, thwarted.
I can’t pretend to know what Michael Jackson would’ve thought about this rehearsal documentary. And I’ve no idea whether Kenny Ortega or any of the other Jackson associates who will share in the film’s success are worthy people, whether they worried about his health, or if This Is It glosses over the warning signs of MJ’s imminent death. But for a massive congregation who just want to spend a little more time with him — please, just an hour or so — this is it.