For Santa Barbarans, it may be well-nigh impossible to reflect on Michael Jackson with any objectivity. After all, it was in our county that Jackson spent years living on his Neverland Ranch, where Tom Sneddon & Co. darkened the last few years of his life and caused him to flee the Santa Ynez Valley for good. Somehow, we get a sense of vindication-and, if not closure, then insight-seeing the disarmingly remarkable film Michael Jackson’s This Is It, assembled from footage of rehearsals for his elaborate last tour.
This Is It is one of the most elementally rhythmic films of 2009, and it is one of the saddest. It should not exist, not because its warts-and-all style would run counter to Jackson’s perfectionist sense of polish, but because Jackson’s death in June robbed the world of a show that feasibly could have led to a full-fledged comeback. That much we now know from the evidence gathered in Kenny Ortega’s beautifully and minimally directed film. Here, each song is treated in a custom way, with a dazzling synchronicity of dance steps, props, lighting, and special new film elements. Apart from a smattering of short talking-head-style interviews with dancers and musicians, the film plays out free of voiceover narration. During “Beat It,” Jackson enthusiastically urges on one young wizardly Australian guitarist as she channels Eddie Van Halen’s famed two-fisted solo. For “Smooth Criminal,” the kindly but confident boss tells the band “you’ve got to let it simmer : bathe in the moonlight.”
Jackson was a child genius whose sense of innocence and idealism continued deep into adulthood, along with a pocketful of neuroses. What we find in the lean 50-year-old performer’s work, executing intricate dance moves while keeping strict track of the musical component, is a song-and-dance man unlike popular music has ever otherwise known.
What makes This Is It such a remarkable achievement, and a surprise to skeptics among us, is that it’s an “inside” job without that insider aftertaste-a raw, real document of this amazing performer at work. No apologia, the film contains none of the incessant nattering, irrelevant punditry, or tabloid spittle following (and preceding) his death. The film simply is a moving, late-breaking glimpse into the working life of one of pop music’s true visionaries, now sadly absent.