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Michael Jackson's This Is It

(2009) *** Pg
111 min. Sony Pictures Releasing, Sony Pictures Releasing International (SPRI). Director: Kenny Ortega. Cast: Michael Jackson, Daniel Celebre, Shannon Holtzapffel, Charles Klapow.

/content/films/3622/1.jpgPay some attention to the man behind the curtain. Michael Jackson’s This Is It—like the life and career of the man it documents—is a hall-of-mirrors investigation of extraordinary talent, emotionally stunted personality, a performer’s process, and the cruel mistress of celebrity. By its very existence, this unprecedented concert (rehearsal) film proves the public’s insatiable desire to obliterate the boundaries celebrities try so hard to protect, but it also serves as a powerful performance version of a last will and testament.

Michael Jackson’s This is It compiles material culled from a reported 120 hours of rehearsal footage shot as reference and archive material. No doubt some of it was destined to one day be a DVD extra, but when Jackson died on June 25, the footage instantly became a treasure trove, the only record of a massive production only three weeks away from embarking on a sold-out 50-city tour. Though Jackson hadn’t embarked on a comparable enterprise for over a decade, the film makes one thing abundantly clear: the This Is It concert would have been a helluva show.

The film we’re left with is only a sketch of what the concert would have been. Stitched-together takes from various HD and “consumer-grade” video sources make This Is It the JFK of concert movies, complete with switching film stocks and the creepy if historic “don’t look away” quality of the Zapruder film. Kenny Ortega (High School Musical), who was in the process of co-directing the concert with Jackson, agreed to direct the concert film as a tribute to the star and a gift “for the fans.” He has succeeded in both aims, though the film’s unavoidably piecemeal quality may turn off those happily accustomed to the modern music scene’s obsessive production polish.

For those of us turned off by the airbrushed, artificially enhanced quality of most musical products, the rough edges make This Is It all the more fascinating, not out of prurience (those looking for anything remotely gossip-worthy can stay home) but rather for the fly-on-the-wall view of the artist at work. Jackson here is as unguarded as he comes; though that may not be saying much, the King of Pop comes across not as a diva but as a surprisingly chivalrous professional. Ortega doesn’t hide the scarecrow-thin Jackson’s eccentricity—in fact, the director flaunts it at times—but the emphasis is on the concert’s celebration of dance, awesome musicianship, and Jackson’s legacy of contributions to both.

Two hours spent in the cavernous claustrophobia of the bizarrely lit Staples Center and The Forum (Ortega at one point half-jokes, “What day is it? What time is it?”) may help the audience to empathize with a celebrity’s otherworldly existence; despite the scope—and the inclusion of film footage and special effects montages representing the show’s spectacle—the film has a potent intimacy. No segment hits harder than Jackson’s solo rehearsal of Billie Jean as his dancers stand below and cheer him on. Though watching the scene is akin to being invited to a private after-hours disco on Mars, Jackson’s swift, smooth moves serve as stunning proof of his undimmed talent. With false modesty, he concludes, “At least we got a feel of it,” a sentiment fans will take to heart at the multiplex.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 1/26/2010

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony does up Michael Jackson's This Is It right with a spectacular A/V transfer. While it's true that the video quality is variable (HD versus "consumer grade" standard-def video), the picture quality here is fantastic, maximizing the source material with state-of-the-art post-production. At its hi-def best, This Is It is sharp, detailed, and colorful, but even during the standard-def passages, we get nothing less (indeed, perhaps more, given projection limitations) than what was presented on theater screens. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is astoundingly full-bodied. Obviously, this is a musically rich track, and doesn't disappoint in this regard. The mix is excellent and crystal-clear, and the off-the-cuff dialogue is always comprehensible and well-handled in the mix.

Though there's no extra performance footage to speak of, Sony includes a number of fine extras, from the hi-def shorts produced for the concert to a series of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The "'Thriller' Vignette with 5.1 Audio" (3:51, HD) is the recently produced 3-D short film that would have preceded--on a giant LCD screen--the live concert.

"'Smooth Criminal' Vignette with 5.1 Audio" (3:58, HD) would likewise have been shown on the screen as part of the concert.

The featurettes all include extensive backstage footage, most of it new, along with unseen interviews. "Making 'Smooth Criminal'" (11:08, HD) features director/producer Kenny Ortega, live show associate producer Alif Sankey, Stimulated Inc. visual effects producer Robb Wagner, production designer Michael Cotten, Stimulated, Inc. visual effects supervisor Bruce Jones, and co-producer Frank DiLeo.

"Staging the Return" (40:46, HD) interviews Ortega, Cotten, Jones, Wagner, live show audio supervisor Michael Durham Prince, producer Randy Phillips, producer John Meglen, producer Paul Gongaware, choreographer/associate producer Travis Payne, drummer Jonathan Moffett, electric and synth bassist Alex Al, guitarist Orianthi Panagaris, "Earth Girl" Jasmine Alveran, and music supervisor/keyboardist Michael Bearden.

"The Gloved One" (15:13, HD) takes a closer look at the concert's costume designs with Ortega, Michael Jackson's costume designer Zaldy, and wardrobe & dressing room supervisor Abby Franklin.

"Memories of Michael" (16:19, HD) allows Ortega, Moffett, DiLeo, Payne, Sankey, Bearden, Meglen, Gongaware, Panagaris, Al, guitarist Tommy Organ, and Cotten to share their personal recollections.

"Auditions: Searching for the World's Best Dancers" (9:50, HD) includes interview clips with Ortega, Payne, and associate choreographer Stacy A. Walker.

Last up are the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:31, HD) and the BD-Live hookup providing movieIQ interactivity (including, specifically, an interactive This Is It playlist).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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