Truly, Michael Jackson was It / King of Pop is the gift that keeps on giving
the Sony documentary chronicling rehearsals for Jackson’s infamous
2009 London shows that never happened.
To like this film, you don’t need to have considered Jackson a misunderstood saint. You don’t even have to dig his music.
You only have to appreciate witnessing someone already at the
pinnacle of his game strive to be better. You have to possess a
voyeur’s curiosity as to how things work, and be utterly intrigued
with the spooky notion of a person so focused on their artistry that
they literally become it.
It’s long been established that Michael Jackson was arguably
one of the greatest entertainers of all time. "This Is It" illustrates
just what a ridiculously magnificent talent the man was.
That illustration, despite what critics rave of the film, doesn’t come from watching Jackson direct his rehearsals. Every
serious musician, whether leading a small town church choir or
putting a lounge trio through its paces, knows that rehearsal is about
being clear on what you want from your players and respectfully
While Jackson does that, in the film the point of his
baddness is made simply by watching him move. Because, in observing
him dance–especially in rehearsal and not full-on, when you get to
observe the delicate mechanics of his brilliance–you realize that
while you were busy living your life, Jackson was perfecting his
wildly intuitive skills as a performer.
While you were going through your divorce, even as monstrous
sales figures of “Thriller” solidified his place in pop music
history, Jackson was spending most Sunday afternoons at home dancing
before a mirror to exhaustion (this is the truth), trying to conjure
something new. While you were busy flip-flopping about things, MJ was
breaking the glass ceiling of his physical and funky limitations. His
was a greatness borne out of a work ethic so dynamic and single-minded
that the results seem abnormal. The idea that other aspects of his
life were said to be such a mess make Jackson’s onstage mastery all the
And at the same time, while watching "This Is It," you realize
that no one becomes the mighty entertainer Jackson was by even the most
diligent practice sessions. The man was the recipient of a gift. A
gift he came to nurture relentlessly at the expense of nearly all else
in his life.
If you haven’t seen the documentary, here’s some advice in
viewing it: don’t look away. Even the most informed Jackson devotee
thinks they are mesmerized simply by the man’s trademark gestures–the
kicks, spins and moonwalk emulated by a multitude of Jackson
impersonators–when they are actually seduced by Jackson’s entrancing
It’s the instinctive physical attitude and sexy rhythm that
occurs in the nanosecond when Jackson’s body is on its way from one
show-stopping move to the next; the stuff you’ll miss if you blink
(or as I did during “This Is It,” try to take notes). Indeed, it is
his funky subtlety that turns impassioned, joyful, physical
expression into sheer magic, and during “This Is It,” many of the
film’s best moments are Jackson’s sublime subtlety–the kind of groovy
mini moves that had Jackson fans taping his televised performances
over the years so they could relish the man’s swaggering mettle over
The truth is that it was Jackson’s ingenuity
as an entertainer–his verve as a dancer, his stylistic vocals that
peerlessly homogenized pop and soul interpretations–that ultimately
made anyone care about what went on in his personal life.
Consider that Jackson’s beyond-eccentric public persona would
have overwhelmed the formidable careers of lesser lights long ago. His
abstruse, seductive dazzle as one of the greatest showmen of modern
time was and continues to be the primary reason for the world’s
fascination, worship and when required, sympathy for Michael Jackson.
We only gaped in wonder at Jackson’s complex private life, often
ignoring and/or forgiving what we might find, in hope that
something–anything–would help shed any measure of light on how a man
can do what Jackson did on a stage with such soulful agility, fury
and grace. “This Is It” is as close to an answer as we’re going to
It is fitting that a film about the live pop music performance
would be the last thing Jackson left us, in an era when the true art
of singing, dancing and musicianship is all but folklore. “This Is
It” is required viewing for anyone who (A) wants to be in show
business or (B) is already in show business. Even if you make your
living behind the scenes–as an entertainment executive, manager or
attorney–see this film to remind you (or introduce you to the concept)
that there is no substitute for absolute and unyielding talent.
Posers, fakers and that hideous Auto Voice be damned.
By the way, after viewing “This Is It"–seeing and hearing
all the truly skilled musicians, singers and dancers–the likes of
Lil’ Wayne should never again want to go onstage holding a guitar
unless they can actually play the thing. Stop disrespecting the guitar
by wearing it as a fashion accessory. Either dedicate yourself to the
task of seriously learning to play or cease your molestation of the
In fact, that–truly getting ones shit together–is the main
thing I took away from “This Is It.” Matters not what you do or pursue
in this life. After witnessing Jackson’s dizzying onscreen
craftsmanship and indefatigable dedication to his thing, if you aren’t
left with the irrepressible desire to step up your own game, then you
missed MJ’s most dynamic move ever.
MICHAEL JACKSON’S ‘THIS IS IT’ PROVES A WINNER: King of Pop is the gift that keeps on giving.
Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT, they’re going to have Michael back, just
for a little while.” – Travis Payne, THIS IS IT choreographer
*Who would have thought it
possible that we could be distracted from the gut-wrenching reality
that Michael Jackson is, physically, no longer with us? But for one
hour and fifty-one minutes, in the shelter of a dark theater,
transfixed by the larger-than-life presence on the screen – making all
the moves we have come to know so well – delivering the music that
remains permanently etched in our psyche, here he is.
The man we so lovingly crowned the “King
of Pop” years ago is alive … well … and in all his fantastical
glory. Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT is a tangible gift the world can
hold on to.
The best “All Access Pass”
fans could ever expect to obtain, Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT reveals
an MJ we could never otherwise have experienced; in a way we will not
And this was just the rehearsal.
Crafted with undeniable love
and respect by famed director Kenny Ortega, the film shows that, had
the concert become a reality, MJ would most likely have accomplished
exactly what he set out to do “Give them something they’ve never seen
When asked why it was so important for him to direct this film, Ortega says:
“It became a responsibility
for me. Who else was going to do it? I was there, and I felt that I
could protect his ideas and the integrity of his last theatrical work.
But the real reason it became so important to me is that I heard an
outpouring from fans, people who said, ‘I had tickets to the concert,
tell me, what was it going to be like?”
Ortega and Jackson have been
friends for more than twenty years. The two first met in the 1980’s
when Michael called the directors’ home and was greeted by the screams
of Ortega’s niece, who answered the phone. They have always wanted to
Sometimes it can take decades for the right “something” to come along. Jackson was sure that
THIS WAS IT.
“We had a heart-to-heart
connection,” Ortega says of his relationship with Michael Jackson – and
in the film it shows. “We truly loved each other … We loved theater
and film, adventure, sci-fi, even horror films. We loved Broadway and
pop music and classical and opera. When you’re with a good friend, you
never struggle for conversation.”
THIS IS IT will undoubtedly
be a lot of different things to a lot of different people; but to
Michael Jackson’s creative partner Kenny Ortega – who upon signing on
to direct the film called friends who were knowledgeable about various
genres of entertainment for guidance; this film is a mosaic.
“This is the show that no one
was ever going to get to see,” Ortega admits. “At the time we didn’t
know we were making a film – we were in the process of building our
show. So this film is like a backstage pass, a private peek into a
world that otherwise no one would have seen, a glimpse into the
creative process of Michael’s final theatrical work.”
With this project, Jackson
meticulously assembled some of the best in the business; and will
executors John McClain and John Branca serve as executive producers on
THIS IS IT. Some of the cast and crew include old friends and
collaborators from years’ past- people that Jackson obviously felt very
comfortable with. Like choreographer Travis Payne, who danced with
Jackson for a while prior to choreographing his ‘Dangerous’ number for
his American Music Awards appearance in 1992 and the subsequent tour.
Payne credits the icon with launching his career; and Randy Phillips,
the THIS IS IT film producer and AEG president who has known Jackson
for 25 years; and Paul Gongaware, who also works with AEG, and oversaw
production and tour direction of Jackson’s last two tours.
But it is director Kenny
Ortega that comes across the film throughout as an exceptionally
sensitive and simpatico creative collaborator. The exuberant cast
clearly devours every opportunity to show their love, gratitude and
unabashed devotion to and for their idol. That is, of course, when
they’re not busting their asses!
The film opens with the cast
and crew giving statements of how Jackson has influenced them; some of
them, unable to communicate clearly beyond tears of pure emotion and
adrenaline as they recall how Jackson literally changed the direction
of their lives. We often get glimpses of the cast and crew standing on
the sidelines watching, applauding, laughing and encouraging Jackson as
he goes through his various altered states onstage. Sometimes thinking
out loud, ‘I’m protecting my voice here’ – and other times intercepting
a musician, “No, that’s too soon, it’s got to simmer.’ And yet other
times, pointing that long skinny finger as he contorts his body to
become one with the music … ‘tat-da-da-dat-dat-dat!’
At one point in the film
Michael is channeling the mood for a particularly intricate scene. In
an exquisite use of sheer cinematic genius, he and Kenny Ortega have
managed to incorporate their shared passion for Old Hollywood in a
segment where Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ from the BAD album is the
backdrop for him to co-star with movie greats Humphrey Bogart and Rita
Hayworth. At one point we hear Ortega’s voice offstage asking, “But
Michael, how will you see when the marquee lights up? After an almost
uncomfortable minute of dead silence on the set Jackson, unfettered,
responds, “I’ll feel it.”
And no one doubts that he will.
In THIS IS IT Jackson holds
nothing back to get what he wants from his cast and crew. While he
shows obvious respect for the skill and talent he has assembled, he is
clearly the articulate, directing force behind every aspect of this
project. Every breath is his. It is his vision that everyone else has
to catch up to. Gone is the sweet, soft, tentative and shy voice so
many took pleasure in mimicking over the years. In this film, the
butterfly has emerged; and its voice has developed into a beautiful
full timbre that bellows throughout whatever space it inhabits.
What makes THIS IS IT so
stunning is that we are all right there as Michael Jackson is getting
there and his journey is a lesson in itself – the stuff that college
curriculums should be made of.
Somehow, from materials never
meant to serve quite this purpose, Ortega has artfully weaved together
a variety of rehearsal footage to create performances that honor his
late, great friend’s legacy. When asked what he thinks made Jackson
such a remarkable talent, Ortega recalls all the great, classic artists
who inspired a young Michael: James Brown, Bob Fosse, Sammy Davis, Jr.,
Fred Astaire, Diana Ross and Quincy Jones. He is sure to point out that
Jackson never imitated any of them, and was always true to himself, but
responds, “…he was inspired, and he learned, and he built and
imagined himself into an artist that was like no artist we’d ever seen
or perhaps never will. He was an entertainer’s entertainer. I’ve worked
with so many greats, but Michael, without a doubt, was the greatest of
On a number of occasions
captured in the film, Jackson has to remind himself not to go all-out
as a singer or dancer, yet in the end he simply cannot help himself
from being great.
Who would have thought there’d be anything more one could do to enhance THRILLER?
But in THIS IS IT, Michael Jackson does just that.
Who would have thought that
the man we have glimpsed occasionally riding around town in a
wheelchair over the past few years would still have the moves he had
when he was in his prime?
But in THIS IS IT, Michael Jackson clearly does.
THIS IS IT producer Randy
Phillips, who was also Michael’s concert promoter and the person who
brought the idea of Jackson doing a series of concerts at the O2 Arena
with his company, AEG Live, says:
“This is a man very much in
command of his art and his craft and what he wanted to do. In many
ways, everything that was the purpose of his life appears in this movie
in some way.”
Phillips says it took two
years to convince Jackson to do the concert. At first, he actually
turned them down. He recalls the final night they were together, the
last rehearsal on the evening prior to Jackson’s death.
“I was transfixed – he was on
stage, dancing and singing and I got goose bumps. And when we left to
go to our cars, he put his arm around me and said, ‘Thanks for getting
me this far. I can take it from here.’”
The world was given the gift
of one Michael Joseph Jackson on August 29, 1958. That gift, even now,
keeps on giving. Thank you, Michael, with THIS IS IT the still-aching
hearts of those who love you, can rest a bit easier.
DeBorah B. Pryor has written for numerous publications over
the past decades and for four years served as an editor at the former,
Black Radio Exclusive (BRE) magazine. She is the founder and president
of THE ART OF COMMUNICATION and provides workshops and private
consultation for professionals challenged by anxiety, shyness and an
inability to be their professional best. Her CD, “Public Speaking for
the Private Person” was released in August of 2009. Contact her via the