Friday, October 1, 2010

This Is It

What would have been Michael Jackson's final tour in the summer of 2009 was titled "This Is It". I read that announcement with some degree of amusement. How many artists have sworn that this was the last time they would grace the stage, performing years' worth of beloved hits? I recall the Who staging an elaborate farewell show in the early 80s. It was not their last appearance. I think KISS may have made similiar claims. Athletes are not guiltless; how many farewells have we bid for Michael Jordan and Brett Favre? Do I need to state why?

It turns out that MJ was telling the truth, if inadvertently. But as the world knows, he would never get to perform those planned sold-out shows in London. On June 25, 2009, the King of Pop passed away. Like many others who heard the news, I thought it was a joke. How does one react to a bombshell like that? When I later learned of how he died, it became much creepier. I had been walking out of a hospital as I read the announcement on my phone. I had just co-monitored a surgery (scroll back). The anaesthesia used for the procedure? Propofol. The same agent (in apparent large doses) that killed Mr. Jackson. He had a 'round the clock physician who administered it for pain and sleep.

I'll bet that if Michael had lived to present the concert tour that THIS IS IT shows in its behind the scenes footage, he would've reconsidered this "final tour" yak and taken his final bow a few more times, as many as his voice would allow and his extremeities would hold up to do what he did best, dance. As this documentary begins, it stunned me to see this 50 year old move as deftly as he always had. It wasn't surprising because of his age, but instead of all the reports of his ill health. The Michael we see in this assemledge of footage (originally intended to go no further than his home library) does not indicate a sickly man, not one bit.

The footage here was also intended for the tour cast and crew to watch later, to observe mistakes and the sorts of things you don't realize you're doing while you're doing them. Sort of like the way coaches show last week's game on film to the players. MJ was very particular about every detail of his mega-elaborate show. The film captures Jackson as he articulates the sort of vocal phrasing he wants, the backbeat, the tempo, etc. Like many other genuises, he was exacting. But, he was also polite and never ugly to his staff. As you watch THIS IS IT, you get a warm feeling that despite all of the bad press: the stories of possible pedophilia, the cosmetic surgeries, the seclusion, the out of control Peter Pan syndrome, this was a decent man.

Director (of MJ's stage show and this film) Kenny Ortega and others are interviewed, all confirming the above. MJ was not only a master of dance and pop, but a great collaborator who was willing to hear others' input. The DVD's extras continue this argument. The cynics among you may wonder if THIS IS IT's collage wasn't carefully edited to only show the sunshine, but my gut feeling is that this film is a good representation, wholly accurate. As one of his managers says in the bonus material: "When the world came down on Michael, he only gave back love." A lesson for everyone.

If you grew up with Jackson's songs and videos, this will have at least passing interest. I still remember hearing "Off the Wall" playing on my friend's sister's turntable when I was 10. I would later be as transfixed by the "Thriller" video as millions of others. For the new stage show, the original John Landis production was rethought and fx'ed up a bit, but the choreography looks much the same. All the familiar songs, "Man in the Mirror", "Black or White", "Beat It," "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and many others are shown in rehearsal, each with appropriate lighting and background to suit the mood of the tune. Some more spectacular than others. Many re-imagined with nifty twists: back-up singers, a different arrangement, an overall fresh perspective. We are given a prime vantage point of the making of something almost otherworldly. It would've been spectacular.

But, it wasn't to be. That tragedy hangs over every scene as we watch, again, a surprisingly energetic star fire up his crew and himself, pumped that he was going to give another gift to his enormous fanbase. Maybe it wasn't truly intended to be his last, but I guess we can only speculate......

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