Review: Film reveals Jackson's human side

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2009 - 4:57 PM

The concert-rehearsal documentary "This Is It" shows Michael Jackson as we've never seen him -- savant creator and seemingly normal guy.

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Michael Jackson in "This Is It."

Photo: Kevin Mazur, Star Tribune

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His nose looks more like sculpture than rhinoplasty. His lips suggest collagen exploding in too many directions. And behind those aviator shades is more guyliner than Adam Lambert wears.

Yet Michael Jackson has never looked more human than he does in "This Is It," the movie that opened Wednesday, four months after his shocking death as he prepared for a 50-concert London engagement.

There's no apparent artifice in this 112-minute documentary, filmed behind the scenes as he rehearsed for those shows. This may be as close as we'll ever get to knowing the strange boy-man who was one of the greatest entertainers -- onstage, on record and on video -- of the 20th century. He comes across as ageless and timeless, just like the songs he sings.

He speaks in a normal voice, not that breathy, halting child-like tone we heard when Diane Sawyer famously interviewed him and then-wife Lisa Marie Presley. He is focused, strong-willed and strikingly polite for a perfectionist who wears one shirttail out and the other tucked while dancing. There are no diva turns, even when he gets upset over newfangled (for him) monitors in his ears or for unnecessarily taxing his voice in rehearsal. He is a patient but firm coach instructing his cast, whether it's a starstruck dancer, a veteran keyboardist or a newbie backup singer who forgets to face the audience.

Comprising mainly rehearsal footage from Staples Center in Los Angeles, the movie depicts Jackson as a visionary, a savant in control of every artistic decision in his ambitious stage show -- the choreography, the musical tempos, the harmonies, the finger snaps, the special effects, even the lighting for elaborate film clips used as stage backdrops. This is it -- Michael Jackson creating magic for the stage. And it is a staggering amount of hard work.

He comes off as more musical than we might have assumed (he knows all the parts and aspects of his songs) and a better singer than we might have given him credit for. Despite the vigorous dance routines, there's no lip-synching or technical enhancement. Although seldom loud (it's rehearsal), his voice is pitch-perfect, passionate and even urgent at times. And he is a total dancing fool, reprising all those moves made famous in videos and even with the Jackson 5: the twitching, the lockin' and poppin' and, of course, the moonwalking.

If you heard the rumors that Jackson was physically depleted at the time of his death on June 25, you wouldn't surmise that from watching these rehearsals. He may be as slender as a colorfully dressed toothpick but, at age 50, he appears more energetic and exacting than the supporting dancers who look to be half his age. And his stamina suggests a world-class marathon runner.

Nothing here portends Jackson's sudden death mere days before he was to leave for London. The only dark moments are the expected graveyard monsters in a new video sequence for "Thriller" and the unexpectedly blue lighting for a work-in-progress performance of "Billie Jean."

This being rehearsals, Jackson is never fully costumed for the stage. There is a glimpse of sequined pants here, a pointy-shouldered jacket there and designers using tiny lights and Swarovski crystals to illuminate an outfit. But there is no glove -- anywhere.

As a movie, "This Is It" is not about gripping storytelling and award-winning cinematography. It's more a document of a moment -- unexpected for both its ambitious comeback and its tragic finality -- of a fiercely focused, misunderstood recluse who seemed very much alive and as thrilling as ever.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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