There is a moment early on in This Is It, when Michael Jackson walks up to one of the lead guitars to communicate what he wants at this point in the music. He does it first with his voice, sounding out the beat, with precise seconds of silence between each beat. And then there is a shimmering, lightning flash ripple that travels from his center and along his arm, finishing in his fingers with an air guitar move that is dazzling. That was it for me. I belonged to this film from that moment on. If you are a diehard Michael Jackson fan, you’ve already seen this extraordinary footage of a musical genius at work. But if you had your doubts about Michael, as I did, I’m here to say, set them aside. See this film.
There are those who claim that they were fans of Michael from the very first, when he was a super talented kid. Like millions of others, I became a fan in the 80s, when he was an androgynous beauty who could out dance anyone on the planet and deliver a song in a way that made him the King of Pop. As the years went on and surgery disfigured his face into an unreal echo of what it had been, and especially when there were all those questions about his relationship with children, I tuned out. His death was a shock, but I had begun to be sad about Michael long before June 25th of this year. When This Is It was announced, I was ambivalent, fearing I’d be looking at a skeletal, strange, 50 year old Michael Jackson and longing for the guy who thrilled me with Billie Jean. What is quickly apparent in seeing this film is that the guy is still a Thriller.
This is all rehearsal footage, some of it close to opening night, close enough that we get a glimpse of the knock-out show that was in the making. Even though we will never get to see the final product, the movie that has been made of the work in process is, in a word, riveting. We see Michael isn’t at performance level, yet even in this slightly more relaxed delivery, he is still a phenomenal dancer. He’s also surrounded by terrific talent — a corps of young dancers and singers living out the dream of being on stage with Michael, and great musicians (there’s a guitar sequence mid-way through that is mind-blowing) who are living out the same dream.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the film is watching Michael interact with all these people. He is always in command, and he knows what he wants. There is such depth to his musicianship that you know what he’s aiming for is absolutely right. Though he is exacting, he treats people with respect, with love. He doesn’t lose patience, or raise his voice. More than once he says, “We’ll get there.” You know that all these people are going to demand of themselves everything they’ve got to give, and more, in order to live up to that expectation. They are in awe of Michael, they love him. They want to excel, because it is excellence that got them the job, and, for many of these dancers, it is love of excellence in Michael Jackson that inspired them to dance.
At the end of This Is It, I got into a long conversation with a trio of people who were sitting nearby in the theatre, people I had never spoken to before. It’s that kind of experience. We had bonded; we were all so turned on by what we had seen that we wanted to rush out and get everyone — literally everyone — to see this movie.
One more thing: stay until the house lights come up. After the long crawl of credits, when you think it is done, there is still something to see — just a few seconds at the true end that made me ache, wishing he had lived to give us This Is It in concert. It is a shooting star moment, one that captures the electricity of what might have been, and reminded me of all the ways in which Michael Jackson’s talent had stunned me in the past. There is chance intertwined with luck in seeing a shooting star. You are surprised and astonished, you want to see more, you want to see it again. And you are also glad that you were there, at that particular time, to see that streak of light cross the sky.