Michael Jackson was many things, and when he died at 50, his demise was so sudden, and so much like the demise of Elvis, that inevitably comparisons will be made. For sure, had it not been for the Beatles, Michael Jackson would have been the greatest thing since Elvis, and in some ways he was greater than either of the aforementioned artists, not least because of his dancing. But if ever there was a cautionary tale of the toll that fame and fortune can take upon a sensitive soul, this is it. Fortunately, ‘This is It’ is not that story, but rather the story of the preparation and rehearsals for 50 sold out shows, that, it was hoped, would get the King of Pop out of indebtedness to his many creditors.
I went to this movie not knowing exactly what to expect, other than that I was going to hear a good deal of enjoyable music, a sort of video version of his greatest hits. But this movie was so much more than that, and the reviewers and audiences have now said as much, as it has topped the box office and the ‘tomatometer’ for a while. What do we learn about Michael Jackson at the cusp of his last days?
Firstly we learn that he seemed perfectly fine. Though 50 he was dancing and singing like he always has, was in good shape, and was a cogent and careful, eve meticulous to a fault, preparer for these 50 shows. Unlike the closing years and months of Elvis’ life, Jackson showed no signs of what was to come, no signs of any drug use at all. Indeed, it looks increasingly like he was the victim of horrible medical malpractice— being administered far too much medicine to make him sleep.
Secondly, we learn how kind and appreciative he was of those who worked with him, all the musicians, dancers, crew and directors who were going to help him make his show perhaps the ‘greatest pop show on earth’, and undoubtedly one of the most expensive such productions. When you see the sets, and elaborate effects that were going into these shows, you will be amazed. It makes the last couple of U2 tours look like minimalism on stage.
Thirdly, the spirituality of Michael Jackson comes out clearly enough in this film, and what an emotional man he was as well. He was constantly ‘God blessing’ those who worked with him, and trying to coax them in a loving manner on to perfection in their performances. And the sheer joy especially in the face of the dancers who got to perform with him shows how much love was radiating in these rehearsals. The performers not merely loved performing, they loved performing with MJ and saw it as an honor. Indeed, at the very beginning of the film we have testimonials of some of the dancers as to what it meant to them to be chosen for these shows. One young man practically sees it as a conversion or salvation experience. Michael Jackson of course grew up Jehovah’s Witness and even went door to door incognito at times, but his piety was actually of a more universal and less sectarian sort.
Fourthly, the music still stands up to repeated listenings. Michael was indeed a child prodigy, and a musician genius in his own field, and a dance sensation in the bargain. It is beyond a tragedy that: 1) he was abused by his father; 2) was deprived of his childhood as his father relentlessly drove his boys to perform and make the family’s fortune; 3) compensated for this by withdrawing into a fantasy world, really never growing up, even at 50. Freud and Jung would have a had a field day with MJ, including with his two failed attempts at marriage and his many traumas, not the least of which was the horrible skin disease he contracted that led to all kinds of plastic surgery and turned him from black to white.
There are many things that one could be critical of when it comes to Michael Jackson, but not the creative, funky, often poignant music he wrote. Unfortunately the one new song in the movie, the title song ‘This is It’ is but a pale shadow of the rest of the music in the film, which is perhaps why it is only used for the trailer. Mr. Ortega who filmed this last hommage to Michael could not of course have known what was to come, but as it turns out, it is a fitting tribute to a controversial man who gave us a lot of joy and smiles, as well as some worries and concerns along the way. Somewhere Eddie Van Halen is playing that guitar riff for ‘Beat It’ and Vincent Price is reciting once more to Michael his rap for ‘Thriller’ in the realm in which they now reside.
Thanks for the good times and good tunes Michael. I hope now you may rest in peace.