Dec. 1, 2009
This Is It (2009)
Grade: 77/100

Director: Kenny Ortega
Stars: Michael Jackson, Kenny Ortega, Orianthi

How I felt about it. When I first learned a movie was coming out based on rehearsals for MJ's ill-fated tour, I expected it would merely be an exploitation of the massive publicity following his tragic death. I thought we would see a gaunt, frail MJ, struggling to get through his numbers. His voice would be weak, or, more likely, he would be sluggishly dancing to a prerecorded vocal track.

I was completely wrong. Here, we have a well edited documentary with professional cinematography and CD-quality sound. The music is performed live, even MJ's vocals. The planned show was first-rate, stocked with some of the best dancers and musicians from all over the world.

MJ does look rail-thin, his movements are subdued, and he shows his anxiety at times, particularly when he complains about getting punched in his inner ear. Or is the music simply too loud?

But his voice is in surprisingly good shape, and he retained his vocal arrangement talent until the end. One of the few new songs is actually up there in performance quality with his "Thriller"-era work: the title song. This, despite sharing composer credit with Paul Anka, who is infamous for the lyric "You're having my baby! What a lovely way of saying how much you love me!"

One also appreciates the work that went into the tour. The acquisition of talent, such as musicians, dancers, back-up singers, the choreography, the mini-movies and their makeup and special effects. Much of this is due to Kenny Ortega, a man with lengthy musical experience who knows how to put such a show together.

And he's also aware that the most important task of all is to keep MJ positive and confident. If this means becoming a sycophantic suck-up, and turning the dancers into cheerleaders for MJ (they howl in excitement when The Gloved One pretends to grab his crotch), then that is the lesser of two evils. Certainly, it is better than watching the production come crashing down along with MJ's fragile, eccentric, and reclusive personality.

But the rehearsals are coming together. Even a perfectionist such as MJ is encouraged. During a performance of "I'll Be There", a transcendent moment happens, the entourage cheers spontaneously, and MJ breaks into a smile. Things break down a bit shortly later, but the moment was important and undeniable, and MJ knows it.

MJ is the biggest winner here. This movie is the closest thing to a happy ending for his career, which foundered in the early 1990s due to predatory child abuse lawsuits. MJ is either guilty of child abuse, or he's not. If he's not, then his own acts of charity were used against him, and he is the biggest celebrity victim of America's intense witch hunt against such crimes (meanwhile, tens of millions of U.S. children receive inferior education in public schools that leaves them unprepared for adult life. Tax dollars are better spent on schools, than on warehousing the dropouts in prisons).

Many people still believe that MJ is guilty of child abuse, and thus is worthy of eternal condemnation and/or damnation. Perhaps so, but all those who accused him of such things had powerful financial motivations to do so. The public grief after his death suggests that our constitution still holds, and perhaps the innocent are considered that until proven guilty, after all, even if it takes 15 years, an acquittal, and a premature death for the consensus to arise.

There is more to This Is It than MJ. Audiences are also exposed to Orianthi, a young female electric guitarist who can play Eddie Van Halen's "Beat It" solo note-for-note. And the movie redeems director Kenny Ortega, whose Newsies Disney musical was a notorious flop back in 1992.

In recent years, Ortega was the director of the massively successful High School Musical franchise, although those movies are presumably dire (I admit not having seen any of them). Perhaps the real talent behind the HSM series is the casting director, who put spectacularly attractive teens (e.g. Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron) in the leads.