When concert promoter AEG Live announced that it intended to craft a feature film out of Michael Jackson’s rehearsal footage mere weeks after his death at the age of 50, fans worldwide were outraged. They protested the exploitation of a man who had always insisted upon perfection in his performances. Millions of box office dollars later, AEG Live succeeded in making a profit, and Jackson fans will be pleasantly surprised to learn that “This Is It” is a genuine and exciting glimpse at the life of a performer who gave the world such a high caliber of music and showmanship.

“This Is It”

At Quality 16 and Showcase
Columbia

“This Is It” chronicles Jackson’s rehearsal performances of the set list for what would’ve been his upcoming series of concerts at London’s O2 Arena. Jackson performs 21 songs, including the necessary smash hits “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” In addition to Jackson singing and dancing his way through the numbers, the film presents a number of skits in various states of completion that would’ve accompanied the performances.

“This Is It” marks Jackson’s first prolonged appearance performing in front of a camera since 1997. Since his HIStory World Tour concluded, audiences worldwide have only been treated to short, uncomfortable glimpses of the star at Neverland Ranch, outside a Los Angeles courthouse or evading paparazzi.

As “This Is It” fades into the King of Pop’s rehearsal of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the audience sees a man of immeasurable talent and physical grace gyrating fluidly to the infectious beat he crafted 27 years ago. We are immediately reminded why Jackson hit so many milestones during his prolific recording career.

In addition to showcasing dozens of Jackson’s most beloved musical numbers, “This Is It” offers a unique image of Jackson as a knowledgeable studio musician and a superstar willing to share the stage. “Make it simmer,” he tells his piano player during a rehearsal of “Jam.” For the famous guitar solo on “Beat It,” he offers a center-stage position to guitarist Orianthi Panagaris, provided she can hit the highest possible note on the instrument, adding the performance will be her “time to shine” when the concerts get underway.

Throughout the film, Jackson is accompanied onstage by a cavalcade of young, backflipping backup dancers who try to keep up with Jackson’s steps, contorting their faces into scowls of unbroken concentration. Meanwhile, a skinny 50-year-old man eight weeks short of death performs his signature dance moves in a windbreaker and track pants, making those backup dancers look positively foolish.

But it’s Jackson’s nonchalance which makes “This Is It” so astounding. Jackson occasionally reminds his director that he has to preserve his voice for the sake of clarity, yet ignores his own advice, delivering a spirited, heartfelt performance of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” after being impressed with his female counterpart’s rendition of her part. He shouts in excitement when the platform under his feet lifts him high into the air. His director begs him to hold on to the platform’s provided handrails; instead Jackson throws his hands above his head with a smile.

The film closes with Jackson performing a live sound check of “Man in the Mirror.” As Jackson energetically belts out his song, the camera pans left to reveal an auditorium entirely empty save for a few stagehands and backup dancers on their lunch break.

While the film is unremittingly entertaining, perhaps its finest impact is that it doesn’t leave the viewer with a sense of loss. The film is hardly polished, providing merely a fraction of the product that would’ve been delivered had Jackson lived to perform the canceled tour. But it still proves that Jackson remained as incalculably talented as he ever was. “This Is It” might not be the farewell that Jackson envisioned, but it is one his fans will surely celebrate.

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