In five days, Michael Jackson fans will get their first real look at the comeback show that could have restored his reputation as the world's greatest entertainer when the documentary This Is It hits 3,000 U.S. screens (and nearly 19,000 international theaters) for a two-week run. The film's director, Kenny Ortega, says he had those fans in mind when he helped cut down 120 hours of rehearsal footage for Jackson's 50-show run at London's O2 Arena into the feature-length movie.
"There was this desire to have one more visit with Michael, one more experience with him," says Ortega, who was choreographing Jackson's show. "It's powerful. It's moving, it's entertaining. It's big."
Two pieces of footage from This Is It screened for Rolling Stone were indeed impressive, and Jackson, who died after a lethal combination of sedatives stopped his heart on June 25th, appears professional and nimble on the screen. "Human Nature" begins with just Jackson and his guitarist, and it's clear he's totally in command of his body and his voice. "The Way You Make Me Feel" segues from a doo-wop intro into the song's more familiar arrangement when Jackson punches out a fist and emits a little growl. When the band misses its cue, he firmly instructs, "Watch me for that growl!"
Gauntly thin and in bedazzled costumery, he hits all the notes, nails all the dance moves. He pops, locks, spins, does the worm, breaks out a penguin dance and even shows off some new moves. The dancers and musicians all working around him seem awestruck (their most frequent comments are "I agree, MJ" and "sounds good, MJ"). "We had a blueprint given to us by Michael from doing the tour — we translated his wishes and his final curtain call and that's what you'll see," says the tour's musical director, Michael Bearden.
The film also shows the sheer size of Jackson's reimagined stage show — a huge set that included stories of scaffolding, the world's largest 3-D LCD screen, a retinue of dancers, aerial acrobatics, a children's choir and 12 original short films.
"I would hope they get what I got from it, which is a wonderful last experience with Michael that is like no other," Ortega says.
Reporting by Claire Hoffman and Andy Greene