That’s how long it had been since Michael Jackson, the self-proclaimed King of Pop, had mounted a substantial tour.
The years since that tour in 1997 were not good ones for Michael. He was still famous. But the things he was famous for? Well, that’s another story—one that has mostly been told by paparazzi and court reporters. Though Michael Jackson had been acquitted of criminal allegations of child abuse in 2005, the court of public opinion reached a less charitable verdict regarding his bizarre behavior.
And so the man who had been famous for his baby-faced tenure as The Jackson 5’s frontman (or, more accurately, frontboy), and later his backward glide across an MTV stage, morphed into a curiosity, even a cautionary tale.
For the man responsible for the best-selling album of all time—estimates of Thriller’s worldwide sales range from 70 to 110 million copies—it was likely a bitter pill to swallow.
Against that dramatic backdrop, Michael Jackson announced his comeback tour on March 5, 2009. Ten planned dates at London’s O2 arena soon swelled to 50. And while fans rabidly anticipated the King’s return to form, others wondered if the physically decimated singer could pull it off. Some speculated that he was being taken advantage of by promoter AEG Live.
Even Michael knew he was nearing his public end. "This is it," he said at a press conference. "This is the final curtain call."
No one could have anticipated how sadly prophetic those words would be.
Michael Jackson, of course, never made it to that stage in London. But in the months leading up to his death on June 25, cameras rolled at rehearsals at Los Angeles’ Staples Center and at The Forum.
The footage they captured has been crafted into a film that offers an intimate portrait of the King of Pop’s bid for redemption.
Rock Doc 101
Concert movies have been with us almost as long as rock ’n’ roll itself, and the conventions governing this genre are well established: Footage of onstage performances gets augmented by "you are there" behind-the-scenes glimpses of what it’s really like to be a superstar.
In this sense, This Is It doesn’t break new ground. What we get is a fairly linear progression from the announcement of the tour, through the selection of backup dancers and construction of the ambitious stage show, to rehearsals of Michael’s deep catalog of hits.
The 24 songs in the movie (some sung in their entirety, others merely hinted at) range from Michael’s culture-shaping mega-smashes ("Beat It," "Billie Jean," "Thriller," "Bad") to his mid-tempo R&B offerings ("The Way You Make Me Feel," "Human Nature," "I Just Can’t Stop Loving You") to a mini-set of Jackson 5 songs ("I’ll Be There," "I Want You Back," "The Love You Save") to later hits ("HIStory," "Man in the Mirror," "Black or White") to a few obscure tracks that you’d probably have to be a hard-core fan to recognize ("Threatened," "Who Is It").
A couple tunes at the end of the movie focus on environmental issues ("Earth Song," "Heal the World"). More on that in a moment.
This Is It isn’t just another concert film, though. Largely because it boasts a different vibe than I’ve felt coming from virtually any other rock doc I’ve ever seen.
A brief introduction at the beginning of the movie states that this footage was never intended for public viewing (a claim that’s been reiterated by the film and stage show’s director, Kenny Ortega, who also helmed the High School Musical films). Instead, Michael requested it for his own private video library.
The result? We see Michael as both the professional perfectionist and the fragile "has-been" striving to make it all work again.
We get images of Michael that we’d expect. His command of the stage is completely intact, and he moves in ways that seem impossibly fluid, as if all of his joints had been replaced with Teflon and rubber as he floats one way while undulating the other. It’s a repertoire of dance moves that’s arguably never been equaled. Michael also acts as a kind of benign general in the way he gently but firmly issues orders about what he wants. Ortega may have opinions, but it’s Michael’s show and it will go Michael’s way.
What’s surprising is the way the film showcases Michael’s humanity and limitations. Several times he says he shouldn’t sing anymore because he needs to save his voice. But as his dancers and crew cheer him on, he gives himself completely to rehearsal performances anyway—almost as if he can’t help but perform if there’s an audience. It doesn’t come across as narcissistic. Rather, it’s endearing because it’s clear that Michael relishes his return to the stage, even if his voice isn’t quite as strong as it once was.
Equally endearing is his tendency to tell members of the crew, "God bless you" as he’s talking to them, a phrase he repeats over and over.
Despite the erratic portrait that has emerged of Michael in the decade or so since his fame peaked, what we get in This Is It is a picture of an earnest, gentle, childlike, talented icon trying to live up to his own legend.
Sentimentality, Sensuality and Spirituality
That said, This Is It is not all about well-wishes, fireside chats, s’mores and mic checks.
Listening to "Billie Jean" with fresh ears, I was struck by the fact that some of Michael’s music isn’t as innocent as most of us tend to remember it. If you stop to think about the lyrics to that song, for example, you quickly realize that it implies promiscuity and an illegitimate birth: "Billie Jean is not my lover/She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one/But the kid is not my son."
That undercurrent of sexuality in some of Michael’s songs is amplified onscreen by the outfits worn by dancers. Several times we see women dancing suggestively as they wear little more than bikinis. Similarly, several shots focus on shirtless guys.
A female choreographer weeding out dancer wannabes says the production team is looking for people who are "lean, gorgeous and hot, dancers who could rock it." Thus, there’s no shortage of scantily clad torsos trying to light up her critical eyes.
Nor is there any shortage of Michael’s trademark crotch grabbing. Not only does he do it, but his male dancers do as well. One scene even involves the aforementioned choreographer coaching a bunch of guys on how to do it right. (Never mind, she quips, that she "ain’t got nothin’ to grab.") Later, Michael and his dancers do hip thrusts into the floor.
Michael mentions God often. But we also get a little dose of the occult as the "Thriller" video gets remade—complete with lots of zombified folks crawling out of crypts and a squadron of deceased, skeletal specters that would have flown out over audiences had the tour commenced as planned.
The film concludes with songs intended to highlight environmental peril. A video for one of these songs (intended to play on the screen behind the stage) involves a little girl in the Amazon falling asleep and then being confronted with a bulldozer. Fire ultimately destroys the rain forest.
After the credits, we see the same little girl hugging the earth—a visual that emphasizes Michael’s spiritualized sentiments about our planet. "I really feel nature is trying hard to compensate for man’s mismanagement of the planet," he tells his crew. If we hope to save the planet, he says, "it starts with us."
Michael’s Long Shadow
The scope of Michael’s ambition with this tour is enormous. Everything is big—as big as the star at the center of it all—in a production that would have been part concert, part movie, part Broadway show, part circus, part environmental revival service.
Right or wrong, This Is It never hints at the troubles fame caused Michael (or the troubles he caused for himself). Near its end, the entire crew joins hands as Michael offers something akin to a benediction. "Continue to believe," he exhorts them. "Have faith, patience, endurance. … Give your all. I love you all. Love is important. Love each other. We’re all one."
Even audiophiles such as myself who never really progressed past the fringe of Michael’s music will find it hard to watch This Is It without a sense of melancholy wistfulness, wondering what might have been for the oft-troubled star if this comeback had been a success.
Or maybe I should say, If this comeback had been a success for him. Because Michael’s death has made him as big a star as his life ever did. Record sales have once again soared to astronomical heights around the globe. And right next to me in the theater sat a woman and her 11-year-old son, both singing their lungs out through the whole movie. I assumed that it was Mom who remembered Michael’s heyday and wanted to relive a few fond memories. But when I asked, she said it was her son’s idea to come.