Like You've Never Seen Him Before.
Michael Jackson's This Is It will offer Jackson fans and music lovers worldwide a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the performer as he developed, created and rehearsed for his sold-out concerts that would have taken place beginning this summer in London's O2 Arena. Chronicling the months from April through June 2009, the film is produced with the full support of the Estate of Michael Jackson and drawn from more than one hundred hours of behind-the-scenes footage, featuring Jackson rehearsing a number of his songs for the show. Audiences will be given a privileged and private look at Jackson as he has never been seen before. In raw and candid detail, Michael Jackson's This Is It captures the singer, dancer, filmmaker, architect, creative genius and great artist at work as he creates and perfects his final show. Directed by Kenny Ortega, who was both Michael Jackson's creative partner and the director of the stage show.
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Runtime: 111 min.
Release Date: 1/26/2010
• “Staging the Return: The Adventure Begins” Documentary
• “Staging the Return: Beyond the Show” Documentary
• “The Gloved One” Featurette
• “Memories of Michael” Featurette
• “Auditions: Searching for the World’s Best Dancers” Featurette
• Two Musical Vignettes
• “Making ‘Smooth Criminal’” Featurette
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Michael Jackson's This Is It [Blu-Ray] (2009)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 21, 2010)
While I would like to avoid cynicism in this review, the simple existence of Michael Jackson’s This Is It makes it difficult. When Jackson died suddenly in June 2009, fans worldwide reacted with grief and dismay.
And with their wallets. Jackson’s music immediately rocketed back up the charts and sold tons of copies. Almost eight years after his last album, Jackson was once again the hottest thing in show business.
When Jackson died, he was in rehearsals for a 50-show concert stand at the O2 Arena in London. He entitled the “tour” “This Is It”, meaning that Jackson intended the shows to act as his last live performances. (Kinda – it seemed likely that Jackson would bring similar concert “residencies” to other cities after the London run ended.)
Because Jackson passed a couple of weeks prior to the first show, this never happened. Eager to rush out Jackson-related product, a feature film entitled Michael Jackson’s This Is It hit the fast track. Amazingly, the flick arrived on movie screens a mere four months after Jackson’s death.
Cynical cash-in product or loving tribute to a legend? I suppose that Rorschach will depend on the viewer. Much of It comes from the rehearsals for the London shows. The film cobbles together this footage to approximate what the concert experience would’ve been had MJ actually made it to the London stage. Here’s the setlist in order:
“Wanna Be Startin’ Something”
“They Don’t Care About Us”
“The Way You Make Me Feel”
Jackson 5 Medley
“Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”
“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”
“Black Or White”
“Man in the Mirror”
Though the concert rehearsal footage dominates, a few other behind the scenes elements appear as well. We see dancer auditions, pyrotechnics demos, costume creation and other bits and pieces.
These add a little depth to the program, though they can distract somewhat. No, it’s not possible for It to provide a seamless recreation of the intended concert, as they’d not gotten to final dress rehearsal yet. Still, I’d have liked to see the musical segments run without ever leaving the stage; I’m happy with the discussions between MJ, concert director Kenny Ortega and others, but I’d like to stay totally focused on the show and leave the outside material for another time.
Though most of those elements are fairly interesting, they also provide the film’s weakest moments. Other MJ concert videos teem with praise and adulation for the singer, and those sentiments pop up here. Indeed, It launches with teary testimonials from auditioning dancers about their 10,000 percent love for Michael.
I feared that the “MJ as savior” theme implied in those comments would pervade It, but happily, they don’t. Yeah, we find occasional praise for the genius of MJ, but the film really does focus on the rehearsals.
And that’s a good thing. When It hit screens, I criticized it as an exploitative piece of work that only existed to capitalize on the mania that surrounded MJ’s sudden departure, and I stand by that opinion.
I never said that this meant It wouldn’t be an interesting movie, though, and I think it is pretty enjoyable. I’m somewhat surprised at the quality of the performances found here, especially since leaked footage made MJ look pretty awful. He seemed to be lethargic and without much life.
Which wasn’t terribly representative. No, you won’t find a super-active MJ here, but I don’t believe that’s the result of his health. As I mentioned earlier, It offers footage that came prior to the concert’s final dress rehearsal, so it doesn’t give us MJ – or any of the dancers – at full effort. They were still working out the blocking and the choreography, so they weren’t going to wear themselves out at this point.
Indeed, MJ even mentions that he doesn’t want to sap his voice by exerting too much before the real concerts occur, and he’s not just making excuses. (Of course, since MJ lip-synchs a fair amount, that’s not always a big concern.) Football players don’t practice at full speed, so a performer like MJ wouldn’t go all-out during a rehearsal.
This shouldn’t connote that you’ll find a zombie-like MJ here, though. Given the nature of the pre-release footage I’d seen, I was pretty surprised to see how active he was during these rehearsals. Granted, it’s clear that the film’s creators cherry-picked the best shots and tried to avoid anything embarrassing, but the fact remains that MJ looked, danced and sang fairly well even at reduced speed.
The quality of MJ’s voice came as the most pleasant surprise. As I mentioned, he’s often Memorex here. MJ hadn’t sung 100 percent live since the 1980s, and that lip-synching trend wasn’t going to end in 2009. Indeed, his contract allegedly only required him to sing live for 13 minutes of the concert. (Insanely, some folks claimed that MJ was only required to be on stage for 13 minutes. If MJ tried to stage a concert in which he remained in the wings for all but 13 minutes, there’d be riots; he may’ve been out of touch with reality, but he wasn’t that far gone.)
Anyway, during the parts of It in which MJ sings live, he shows that he still had a pretty darned good voice. By 2009, he’d gone to a slightly deeper speaking tone than the one we heard for decades, but that didn’t seem to affect his singing. As found here, MJ could still muster vocal comparisons with his heyday.
If Michael Jackson had actually made it back to the concert stage, would it have resuscitated his career? We’ll never know. Many greeted his 50-show London “tour” with real skepticism, and while Jackson viewed it as a way to reclaim his title as a great entertainer, it’s unclear how much it could’ve done to rebuild his tattered career.
Don’t expect This Is It to answer any questions about what would have been. The movie demonstrates that MJ could still perform well, but it also doesn’t reveal him as an entertainer with a great eye toward the future; the concert would’ve included nothing but greatest hits, many of which came with the same choreography we’d seen for decades. The show would’ve been a big spectacle, but it’s not readily apparent that it would’ve done much to redeem the man with a mass audience.
Ironically, death did that for MJ. History has already started to be rewritten, and heavily pro-Michael efforts like This Is It will serve to advance that particular agenda. And I don’t have any problem with that – at least not in this instance. Some diehard fans criticized This Is It as a whitewashing because it covered up the signs of MJ’s poor health.
Any belief that This Is It would’ve been a “warts and all” documentary were misguided at best and bizarrely deluded at worst. It actually provides a less gushing and more even-handed film than one might expect. It doesn’t inundate us with praise for MJ, and it offers a pretty nice examination of the concert he intended to do. Given the circumstances under which it was created, It becomes satisfying.
By the way, stick around until the end of the credits, as a little more footage shows up there.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B+/ Bonus C
Michael Jackson’s This Is It appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Image quality varied a lot due to the various cameras used, but much of This Is It looked great.
In truth, This Is It told the tale of two resolutions. When the flick went with high-def cameras – which I’d loosely estimate was 65-70 percent of the time – it provided stellar visuals. The high-def shots offered crisp delineation, with virtually no softness in sight. Colors appeared lively and vivid, and blacks were dark and deep. Shadows worked well, too, and no flaws occurred.
During that other 30-35 percent of the film, we got footage from standard-def video cameras. Though still 1.78:1, the Blu-ray windowboxed these elements, so they looked considerably smaller than the high-def shots.
And considerably uglier as well. Sharpness was consistently rough, as the SD elements came across as fuzzy and jagged. Colors looked runny and flat, while blacks were mushy and shadows were too dense. Video artifacting gave many of those shots a grainy appearance.
Since 30-35 percent of This Is It looked pretty bad, why did I give the whole package a “B+”? I did this for two reasons. First, the high-def shots really dominated – my 65-70 percent estimate might be low – and they really looked amazing.
In addition, I wasn’t sure it was fair to heavily dock the transfer for issues beyond its control. Shot for MJ’s personal library, this footage was never intended to be seen by a mass audience. I expect some of it probably would’ve shown up eventually, but it’s not like this project was created with big screens in mind. Given the origins of the footage, I felt it looked fine and deserved that “B+”.
I don’t have to sound so equivocal as I discuss the solid DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of This Is It. As one would expect, music heavily dominated the flick. Songs ran almost constantly, and they used the soundscape in a satisfying way. In the front speakers, stereo delineation proved solid, and the surrounds added quite a bit too. They boasted nice reinforcement of the tunes, and they occasionally contributed unique instrumentation and effects. Some of those violated the “you are there at a concert” impression, but I didn’t mind; I thought they blended together in a pleasing manner.
At all times, audio quality seemed strong. The songs certainly sounded good, as the tunes boasted clean highs and rich lows. Occasional dialogue was surprisingly good; most of the “lines” were recorded on the rehearsal stage, but they remained clear and accurate most of the time. The occasional effects were reasonably accurate and concise. I thought the audio was more than satisfactory.
We find a moderate array of supplements here. Two documentaries come under the banner of “Staging the Return”: The Adventure Begins (27:21) and Beyond the Show (13:25). These feature thoughts from director/producer Kenny Ortega, live show audio supervisor Michael Durham Prince, producers Paul Gongaware, John Meglen and Randy Phillips, production designer Michael Cotten, choreographer/associate producer Travis Payne, drummer Jonathan Moffett, bassist Alex Al, guitarist Tommy Organ, producer Frank Dileo, keyboardist/musical director Michael Bearden, visual effects producers Bruce Jones and Robb Wagner, guitarist Orianthi Panagaris, and actress Jasmine Alveran. “Return” looks at the conception and design of the concert Jackson planned to stage as well as aspects of MJ’s involvement in these areas.
Although This Is It came largely free from gushing praise for MJ, “Return” more than makes up for lost time. From start to finish, we hear hyperbole about the Singular Genius That Was MJ. We’re in a world where MJ didn’t make “music videos”: he made “short films”. We’re told he’s from an era of real performers, a statement that implies he didn’t lip-synch, which is totally incorrect. Along the way, we do find some good details about aspects of the concert not covered in the movie, but they occasionally seem incidental, as the participants care more about exaggerated claims.
Such as? Such as when Prince asserts that MJ planned to tour in 2001 but he didn’t due to 9/11. That part may be true, but Prince states that all major artists canceled their tours in the wake of 9/11. Uh, no. Madonna was in LA at the time and finished her tour there with concerts only a few days after the terrorist attacks. U2 were on stage weeks later and didn’t change plans at all. A few concerts scheduled on or immediately after 9/11 were canceled or postponed, but I don’t think any “major artists” nixed entire tours - except, apparently, for MJ. Michael was a legend – why do programs about him feel such a need to exaggerate/lie to pump him up even more?
Three featurettes follow. The Gloved One goes for 15 minutes, 13 seconds and provides remarks from Ortega, costume designer Zaldy, and wardrobe and dressing room supervisor Abby Franklin. This piece looks at the costumes designed for MJ to wear during the concert. Though it includes some of the hyperbole/praise of “Return”, overall it’s a lot more balanced. Notes from Zaldy dominate, as he gives us a good look at the outfits he created for MJ.
Memories of Michael lasts 16 minutes, 19 seconds and features Ortega, Moffett, Dileo, Payne, Bearden, Gongaware, Meglen, Panagaris, Al, Organ, Cotten, and live show associate producer Alif Sankey. Ortega refers to MJ as “an angel walking the planet”. Okay. That statement sums up the thoughts bandied about here: it’s lavish praise from start to finish, with very few interesting notes to be found. Dileo throws out a couple of good stories, but that’s about it.
Finally, Auditions: Searching for the World’s Best Dancers occupies nine minutes, 50 seconds with statements from Ortega, Payne, associate producer Stacy A. Walker, and various unnamed dancers. Once again, the “everything connected to MJ is the biggest and the best” tone pervades another program. Some of this footage already appears in the film, and we get enough of it there. No additional insights appear in this fluffy piece.
Next we find two Musical Vignettes. These come for “Smooth Criminal” (3:58) and “Thriller” (3:51). Both of these were intended to run on the stage’s video screen before performances of those two songs. We see glimpses of these during This Is It but it’s fun to view them on their own.
Making “Smooth Criminal” runs 11 minutes and includes notes from Ortega, Sankey, Wagner, Cotten, Dileo and Jones. We get some details about the “Criminal” vignette seen earlier and its creation. We learn a few good notes about the shoot, but the usual fluff weighs down the piece. Is there some camp that people go to so they can learn Michael Speak? They all sound so much alike that I assume there must be a formal program in place. Oh, and I wanted to punch Wagner when he claimed MJ “more or less” invented music videos. Puhleeze!
An ad for Grown Ups opens the disc. In addition, it appears under Previews along with promos for It Might Get Loud, Soul Power, Ghostbusters, A River Runs Through It, Salt, Ice Castles, and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. The disc also includes the theatrical trailer for This Is It.
Though Michael Jackson’s This Is It depicts a work in progress, it does so well. I question the motives of its reason for existence, but I can’t complain too much about the film itself, as it offers a surprisingly clear, glitz-free take on its subject. The Blu-ray offers generally very good picture and audio, but supplements fare less well due to the excessive gushiness they display. The absence of more informative bonus features disappoints, but This Is It will still be interesting for Michael Jackson fans.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.25 Stars|| Number of Votes: 8|