The news in late summer about the plans to release This Is It (Sony Pictures), a movie documenting Michael Jackson's rehearsal process for the stage show he was preparing at the time of his death, didn't bode well. Given that the footage in question wasn't intended for a film but for Jackson's own archive, it seemed inevitable that the result would be an exploitative, thrown-together mishmash, a random bunch of murky home-video snippets padded out with sentimental talking-head interviews and montages of too-often-seen bits of old MTV videos and tabloid news headlines.
Cut to me in a screening room in late October, weeping my way through a stripped-down performance of "Human Nature" that brings out a whole new meaning in the song. (The song's incongruous last line, "I like living this way," suddenly seems like an apologia for Jackson's baffling personal life.) Or, a few scenes later, marveling at the bizarre gestural Kabuki he brings to a showstopping duet version of "I Can't Stop Loving You." This Is It is one of the best documents of live performance that I've ever seen, a rehearsal diary that's more intimate and immediate than a traditional concert film. And more than any sitdown interview with the notoriously opaque and evasive Jackson, it gives you a sense of what he was like: a man inhabited so completely by his performing self that he's more at home moonwalking than walking down the street.
The most surprising thing about This Is It may be its purity of intent. The film, directed by the "billion-dollar maestro" Kenny Ortega (he was also the director of Jackson's stage show, as well as a long list of mega-spectacles including the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics) makes no attempt to explore Jackson's offstage life, past or present—a brief montage of Jackson 5 clips during the song "I'll Be There" is the only nod toward biography. Instead, Ortega is interested in—obsessed by—showing us Jackson as a working artist.
Ortega methodically works his way through the concert, showing an unusual respect for the integrity of each song. (Even in good music documentaries, the tendency to cut away mid-song is endemic.) We see Jackson helping to cast dancers (out of 5,000 who auditioned, only 11 were chosen for the show), coaching his keyboardist on how to come in just behind the beat ("Like you're dragging yourself out of bed"), and encouraging a female guitarist to go all-out on a shredding solo: "This is your time to shine."
The portrait of Jackson that emerges is of a considerate and respectful collaborator, but also an iron-willed perfectionist who knew precisely what he wanted out of his crew and insisted on getting it. Tellingly, it's during a rehearsal of "I Want You Back," the Jackson 5 hit he may have sung more times than any other song in his life, that Jackson allows himself a moment of divadom, kvetching at length about the earpiece microphone that feels like "a fist inside [his] head." Jackson seems at home trotting out all the big hits from his own back catalog ("Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Thriller," and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' " are all here), but watching this 50-year-old man return to the song he sang as a mass-marketed child prodigy, you have to wonder whether there's more going on inside his head than just pressure from an uncomfortable mic.
One thing is clear: If Jackson had lived to perform his planned 50-show run in London, his sold-out audiences would have gotten their money's worth. Though he's alarmingly thin, Jackson in no way looks or sounds like a washed-up, burned-out addict with a death wish. His voice, especially in the softer ballad songs, remains haunting (though he often resisted singing all-out in rehearsals in order to preserve his throat), and his dancing is mind-bendingly precise. In fact, Jackson's body moves with such otherworldly grace it's as if he's never not dancing. When he delivers a playfully spot-on imitation of the gesture of flight attendants everywhere ("Exits are located to the front and rear"), you realize what a student of bodily movement he really was: Whether from Mick Jagger, Bob Fosse, or a Delta Airlines stewardess, any move he liked was fodder to be incorporated into his signature style.
If, like me, you're a making-of geek who would rather watch rehearsal footage than the final polished performance, it's a thrill to see the stage of L.A.'s Staples Center (where Jackson and his crew were rehearsing before heading to London for their final dress rehearsals, and where his globally televised funeral would take place on July 7) scuffed and covered in tape marks. Dance, in particular, is a pleasure to watch in the process of being made. Witnessing dancers of this caliber stop in midexecution of some seemingly impossible move, only to repeat it again and again, makes what their bodies can do seem more, not less, amazing. "Dancers in a Michael Jackson show," Ortega lectures them at their first rehearsal, "are extensions of Michael Jackson." The show's choreography, by Jackson and his longtime collaborator Travis Payne, is rarely adventurous—there's lots of floor-humping, shoulder-twitching, and "Thriller"-style zombie arms—but the movement language Jackson created is so indelibly his that it's heartstopping to see it again for the last time.
As we watch Jackson working to perfect this final and never-finished show, we're keenly aware that he's performing for three audiences at once: the 20 or 30 fellow dancers, musicians, and crew members who were present at rehearsals; the imagined live audience for those London shows; and the worldwide audience that's watching this movie now. As members of that last group, we get just about everything that would have been available to the first two, except for the live presence of Michael Jackson. But as This Is It reminds us, that presence is irreplaceable.
Slate V: Critics on This Is It and other new releases