There’s a moment near the beginning of This Is It, the concert film assembled from Michael Jackson’s rehearsals for his 50-show run at London’s O2 Arena, where the star’s crew of 11 carefully hand-picked dancers becomes an army 1,000 strong thanks to some eye-popping green-screen work for “They Don’t Care About Us.” Audiences in New York gasped at the sight — for the first of many times — of what would clearly have been one of the biggest stage spectacles of all time.
Everyone knows why Jackson never got to bring his dream show to life, and in the days before his death many doubted he’d be able to pull off the gigs regardless. He was frail, thin, sickly; the opening shows had been postponed because the production wasn’t ready. But in the late hours of June 25th, as the public scrambled to understand what could have killed the star, those responsible for the This Is It production insisted the MJ they knew was fit, strong, persistent. They said rehearsal footage would prove it.
This Is It is proof that Jackson did still have it: the magical voice, the gravity-defying moves (most of them), the clear-headed artistic vision of one of the greatest artists of our time. The film debuted simultaneously in 16 cities last night, including Los Angeles, where Jackson’s brothers attended a screening, and several locations in New York, like a Chelsea theater where fans danced to “Thriller” in the lobby, ushers were outfitted in special This Is It T-shirts, and fans signed a memory mosaic as they shuffled out the door.
The film shows Michael and tour director Kenny Ortega building the show from the ground up — which means lots of descriptions and 3-D models of the incredible pop spectacle Jackson imagined in his head. Full songs are often spliced together from several takes from different rehearsal days, and though the film touts the footage as full dress rehearsals, there are no glimpses of any costumes and few finished sets.
But the songs — which adhere fairly closely to their original studio versions and video choreography — are crisp. “Human Nature” opens with a chilling a cappella; Jackson becomes a bad guy running from gangsters like Humphrey Bogart in an elaborately filmed segment to accompany “Smooth Criminal”; in a new staging of “Thriller,” Jackson emerges from a giant mechanical spider.
Jackson repeatedly states that he’s holding back a little as to not wear out his voice and body — one reason to explain why he didn’t always keep up with his younger and more muscular dancers, and was sometimes out of sync with the band. (The star, a notorious perfectionist, would probably cringe at the thought of his unpolished rehearsals seeing the light of day.) But at 50 years old, and more than a decade past his last big performances, Jackson still had a great performers’ spirit and skills. You got the feeling that if that empty auditorium was full of screaming fans, he’d be able to conjure some otherworldly energy. And he was generous about sharing the spotlight with his supporting cast: backup singer Judith Hill, who wowed the world at Jackson’s L.A. memorial; Orianthi, the gifted young guitarist who shredded the solo on “Beat It.”
A lot of the power of This Is It is in the off-the-cuff moments, like Jackson making funky popping sounds to assist bassist Alfred Dunbar, giving advice to backup singer Hill during “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” or just molding the minutiae of his show with an auteur’s precision. Most revealing is how Michael commands and occasionally chews out band in the politest, cutest way humanly possible. (“When that door opens, start that piano! God bless you.”)
The end of every song was greeted with applause in New York, and the scene of Jackson throwing his entire body into the crotch-grabbing “Billie Jean” completely brought the house down. Needless to say, Michael Jackson fans were already singing its praises in the lobby before the credits finished rolling at one Brooklyn theater as “new” song “This Is It” — credited to MJ alone and not co-writer Paul Anka — played.
“Loved it. I’m going on Facebook and saying OMG. This is MJ at his greatest,” said Brooklyn second grade teacher Denise Green. Her friend, Bronx school safety agent Sandra Pires added, “I could watch it again, even if I have a 6:30 roll call.”
Brooklyn actor Kenya Brome was first in line, arriving two hours in the dribbling rain, wearing a full red-and-black “Beat It” jacket. “I thought it was a fabulous experience. I cried during a lot of it. I danced in my seat,” she said. “I’m glad he was happy with the way they were going with it. It was comforting. I’ll always miss him and I’ll always love him.”