Since his death in June, the image we've had in our minds of Michael Jackson is of a man overwhelmed by drugs, with a frail body, enduring a rapid and undignified decline; reeling in the aftereffects of plastic surgery. Jackson's personal life, soft voice, bizarre behaviour, as well as the reported details of the state of his corpse, did not help. We heard of the phantom needle marks all over the King of Pop's body, black marks on his legs, his peach fuzz of hair which he constantly covered with wigs, the state of his skin and his nose, claims that he penciled in his eyebrows and lips.
But This is It, which I saw this week, brings to the forefront another aspect of the story. The film is based on rehersal footage for a planned series of concerts (called 'This is It') which was to be held at London's O2 arena. The series was scheduled to begin in July 2009 and continue through March 2010. But less than three weeks before the curtain came up, and with all concerts being sold out, Jackson died from cardiac arrest in the wake of a drug overdose.
This is It is a compilation of interviews, rehearsals and backstage footage of Jackson and his crew as he prepared for the series. The film, directed by Jackson's long-time collaborator Kenny Ortega, is actually a touching and, ultimately, tremendously entertaining documentary featuring candid footage which, more than anything in recent decades, reminds us of the genius of the most important pop icon of the century. And if you thought that Jackson would not have been able to endure a 50-stint concert series, this makes you think again. If you are searching for the closest substitute you could have gotten for the O2 series, this this is it. Jackson performs song after song from his classic catalog of hits.
We see a side of Jackson that has rarely been seen: that of the artist in rehearsal as he painstakingly hones his craft and works with those around him to get them to the standard that he required. Here was an artist who was on form, whatever the state of his health. Although he was just in rehearsal, Jackson's voice sounds perfect, for example, when he at one point belts out 'Human Nature' with a kind of effortless, alien grace. Even the normally quite wooden audience at Movietowne broke out in cheers and applause almost at the end of each performance.
We come away feeling like we got a better glimpse of the man's talent. For instance, during sound checks he stops to correct a single wrong note, saying wryly: "That's why we have rehearsal." He warns a guitarist at one stage to "funk it up" more. For a complicated sequence in which he is expected to give a cue with a giant video screen behind him, he tells the directors that he will have "to feel" the image on the screen behind him before giving the cue. At another stage, he implores the band to let a pause "simmer" before resuming in order to achieve the full effect.
This was a man, then, who in his last days remained utterly attuned to his craft. His music was so familiar to him; so integral, that we feel that seeing him on stage was like seeing the man entirely, even though questions over his private life remain.
Going into the film, many voiced concerns over whether or not the film simply represents commercial exploitation; another chance to make money off Jackson's death. For sure this is true. But the film is to an extent redeemed because it is actually a fitting (if not final) tribute to genius. It focuses on one thing: the music and nothing else. And perhaps that approach, in showing this pure rehersal footage complete with only personal glowing tributes to the man from his crew, is correct. For only through the very things that may have contributed to his decline could Jackson have lived and sustained his peculiar art. And it is the art that lives.
In the end what we come away with is an even deeper sense of tragedy; a sense that we were robbed of something great. Jackson may have stepped off the concert stage decades ago, but in this film, it is as though he never left.