Thursday, December 03, 2009

Movie Review: This Is It

I've waited over a month to see the Michael Jackson concert documentary, mostly out of stubbornness because I just could not believe the hype about the "two week engagement." Sure enough, it's now December (the movie opened on my birthday) and a dramatic disappearance was an empty threat.

If you've heard that--as a documentary--it's a little weird, you won't hear differently from me. Clearly, the director (also MJ's concert director) Kenny Ortega is working with limited material here. The footage is raw, mostly without costumes and effects, though we do get to see some beautiful set-pieces in the making--my favorite is the towering back-lit building frame for "The Way You Make Me Feel," especially when the dancers are scurrying up and down the scaffolding in time to the music.

And Michael himself is weird. He's emaciated, and often appears to be wearing sequined pants and tops as his everyday casual wear. He never takes his sunglasses off, and he mostly says "God bless you" and "It's all about L-O-V-E" when he does say something, which isn't often.

On the other hand, his voice--though he sometimes holds back because he's in rehearsal--is still pure and transporting, and damn, the man can MOVE. The years and whatever he's done to himself don't seem to have impacted his signature style in the least. He's a charismatic dancer to the end.

And he knows what he wants. He's not a tyrant, but he's definite about his desires, firmly but gently correcting his producers, technicians, musicians. His instincts seem spot-on, too. When he asks for a moment of silence, or an extra bar of bridge, it's the right choice--the drama is heightened just so. And drama is what he's unabashedly going for.

When it comes down to it, though, the rehearsal footage of some of MJ's most famous songs is not enough to keep me engaged. I doze off a bit in the middle. For me, the real story is introduced in the first five minutes, and while it simmers tantalizingly in the background (literally) it never really pops. And that story is the dancers.

The movie opens with close-ups of Michael's backup dancers, with a few words from each. Some of them are in tears (it's not clear whether this footage is pre- or post- news of MJ's death.) One of them talks about what an honor it is to work with the man who was world famous before they were even born.

We see some all-too-brief audition footage, with some fascinating soundbites from the directors and choreographers. One explains that, in an MJ show, "the dancers are an extension of the man." My favorite quote comes from a choreographer during the winnowing process from hundreds of dancers:

If you don't have that goo, that ooze, coming out of you--you're not going to get the job.

I love how raw and delicious this notion is, that charisma must be gushing out your pores for you to belong in this project. After all, the King of Pop would expect nothing less from himself.

When the auditions are done, there are 11 male dancers chosen for the show. Apparently, there are female dancers, too, but we barely see them. The male dancers, however, are on display--a solid but mutable background--for the entire film.

And here's where I start to get disappointed. All that talk of goo and ooze makes me sit up and take notice. More like that, please. Let's hear from these dancers, their impressions of the auditions, the rehearsals, the great man himself. They are clearly spending the most time with him. But almost immediately they are clumped into a single entity, emphasized by the cutaways to them cheering and clapping for their idol during the rare occasions he is on stage without them. Once, they are shown doing a synchronized wave during the chorus of "I'll Be There," but offstage.

Yet I can't stop looking at them. They clearly have the goo and the ooze. One towheaded mop-top in particular keeps pulling my eye, the expression on his face like he can't believe his luck, that he knows he's making entertainment history with every crotch grab. It's so charming and revealing. When the camera pulls back for a wide shot, my eye is drawn away from the pale, elf-like MJ in front and towards the boys in their baggy pants and backwards hats, dancing their sweet little hearts out. And doing it like it's the last thing they'll ever do. They really do look like an extension of him, but more present, more vital. Their commitment and passion shine on their faces.

Little did they know it was the last thing MJ himself would ever do. And that all their hard work would be relegated to a grainy documentary, and never once would they feel what would take the place of the cue:

"And wait for applause...applause...and slow umbrella, fade out."

And that's a different kind of tragedy.


The Wades said...

YOU ARE AWESOME! Man, I see why you're a writing instructor/porfessor. Please never read my blog again. Embarrassed and ashamed. In awe of you. :)

Oh, about your post. I have pretty curious about this movie. Whenever I suggested to anyone we go see it, I got the look like "you want to go see that freak show? " and then I suddenly feel guilty for all the years (hopefully it was just one tops!) I spent lusting over that one-gloved bandit, his photos plastered all over my wall.

It makes me so sad to think about the life he led.

Samantha said...

Aw, Michelle, you are too kind. :) But I have to thank you for commenting because I thought this post was going to disappear into the ether without a single comment, and I did have a lot of fun writing it. :)

And you had the posters, huh? :) I was never that kind of fan. But you can't have lived through the '80s without being affected by the "one-gloved bandit" in some way. ;)