As Terry Gilliam proved in Doctor Parnassus, losing your lead needn’t stop you piecing together a performance from the footage he left behind. This Is It takes a similar tack, turning film of Michael Jackson preparing for his never-realised London concerts into a two-hour cash-cow that is sure to be lapped up by the millions of fans still grieving his untimely death.
But while it’s easy to accuse director Kenny Ortega of cynical opportunism, his behind-the-scenes documentary does fulfill a valid purpose. Those who snapped up tickets for Jackson’s 50-date residency were cruelly deprived of what by any measure was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. By watching This Is It they’ll at least get some idea of what they missed out on, not to mention a revealing insight into Michael’s working methods.
Made up of semi-complete routines culled from various stages of the rehearsal process, Ortega’s film shows Jackson conserving both energy and voice as he runs through his choreography on the stage of LA’s Staples Center. Noticeably thin and rarely minus his sunglasses, he is clearly not in the best of health. Nor, though, is he a corpse-in-waiting, his determination to get every move, note and pose right challenging the notion he was only doing it for the money. There are times he appears as giddy as a schoolboy, as when he takes his first ride on a crowd-surfing cherry-picker or inspects 3D images of zombies featured in a new Thriller intro.
Yes, he appears a little testy, berating his musicians for not following his rather gnomic instructions or complaining about a malfunctioning earpiece. It’s left to us, however, to decide whether this is Jackson feeling the pressure or merely being a perfectionist – just as it’s our call to judge if this is a worthwhile footnote to his legacy, or just one more go at exploiting it.
A concert doc without the concert, this airbrushed vision of Jackson’s final months doesn’t really tally with the tragic reality. Still, it’s hard to take your eyes off the King of Pop as he struts his stuff one last time.