**/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B-
directed by Kenny Ortega
by Ian Pugh Cobbled together from the rehearsals for Michael Jackson's planned fifty-show tour, the almost-concert film This Is It is intended to provide a simulacrum of the man's "vision" before his untimely death. However, its primary attraction may very well be the rumble you feel from the unforgettable basslines of "Smooth Criminal" and "Beat It" when played in a movie theatre. It proves an experience unto itself, as does watching Jackson perform his greatest hits with impossible elegance--but the picture stumbles whenever it slows things down to hold a love-in for Jacko, which is pretty often. This Is It gets itself into trouble off the bat, with the unending praise from the singer's tearfully grateful dancers (pre-audition/pre-mortem) giving way to a screen bathed in white light and a choir of angels; the whole affair is so beatific that it crosses the line from loving eulogy to revival tent. It's a feeling the film never quite shakes.
When director Kenny Ortega makes the onscreen assertion that Jackson's performance constitutes "the church of rock-and-roll," he might as well put on a miter and start sermonizing. Perhaps you can sympathize with that kind of perspective on one of the three or four most important artists of the last thirty years, but I have to draw the line at a splitscreen turning three rehearsal sessions into an ersatz holy trinity. The religiosity of it all becomes so oppressive that I felt more than a little beaten down by the time that reliable toe-tapper "Billie Jean" finally made its way onto the screen. Meanwhile, the choreography ranges from the sublime to the perfunctory (the problem there lies in the attempt to outdo the definitive music videos), the stage effects are ridiculous (check out the silly black widow used to bring Jackson out for "Thriller"), and the cheesy video remakes stand only too comfortably alongside Ortega's recent work for the Disney Channel. Naturally, because most of this footage was never meant for broadcast or theatrical distribution, it's all a bit suspect as a film--and naturally, the end result lacks the visceral charge of a Stop Making Sense, still the gold standard for these endeavours. Originally published: October 28, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Sony brings This Is It to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p presentation. The bulk of the picture was shot with the hugely-popular Red One camera, which has a variable resolution spanning from 2k to 4k, the latter of which seems to have been reserved for This Is It's "film" segments--remakes of the videos for "Thriller" and "Smooth Criminal" that were to be rear-projected onto a huge screen during the concert. Still, it's a mixed-media assignment at heart, and, curiously, some of the most stable, professionally-composed performance footage looks like it was recorded on a camera phone, given its blizzard of compression artifacts and telltale windowboxing. For the most part, the image has the bloodless perfection of high-end B-roll. As for the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA track: it's inexplicable that mere rehearsals should sound so rich, calling into question the veracity of not the live-ness of the music (this is big audio dynamite), but claims that this material was never intended for public exhibition. Then again, when it came to Michael Jackson, no expense was ever spared.
Extras--in 1.78:1, 1080p, all--begin with the full "Thriller" and "Smooth Criminal" vignettes (4 mins. apiece) in DD 5.1, the former lacking the intended 3-D enhancement and, judging by behind-the-scenes clips of its production, seemingly cropped from its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. "Making Smooth Criminal" (11 mins.) belabours the alleged genius of this tasteless, amateurish Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid rip-off--and as a film fan, I found it exasperating that In a Lonely Place was continually lumped in with "gangster movies" by these posers. The two-part "Staging the Return" (41 mins. total) freely indulges in the mawkishness that This Is It proper largely eschews. (Ditto "Memories of Michael" (16 mins.), although it contains an illuminating anecdote from bassist Alex Al about Jackson's handclaps having the power of a sonic boom.)
The best of NWE's featurettes is "The Gloved One" (15 mins.), in which costume designer Zandy unveils Jackson's heretofore-unseen wardrobe for the concert, including the much-touted, crystal-bedazzled "Light Man" suit, the kind of thing that would make Liberace blush. I like that Zandy is the only interviewee irreverent enough to channel Jackson in recounting his dealings with him; hopefully Cher will stage a comeback so that none of his designs go to waste. Lastly, "Auditions: Searching for the World's Best Dancers" (10 mins.) probably would've made a more compelling film than This Is It, but all we get is this sanitized recap of the cutthroat competition to become backup dancers on Michael Jackson's final tour. Trailers for Adam Sandler's direct-to-video-looking Grown Ups, It Might Get Loud, Soul Power, Ghostbusters, A River Runs Through It, Salt, Ice Castles, and Hachi: A Dog's Tale round out the disc, with the Grown Ups spot also launching automatically on startup.
111 minutes; PG; 1.78:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA; English SDH, French subtitles; BD-50; Sony