NEW YORK — Tuesday night marked the worldwide premiere of “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” as Sony Pictures simultaneously unveiled the documentary in 17 cities around the world. MTV News nabbed a seat at the New York screening, in the midst of Times Square, to take in the long-anticipated action.
(Spoilers, if you can call them that, abound below, so if you don’t want to know anything about what you’ll see up on the screen, turn back now.)
The film opens with scrolling text explaining the origins of the planned This Is It comeback shows and Jackson’s decisions to launch them and to allow rehearsals to be filmed. Then we get MJ’s dancers speaking directly to the camera about the meaning of the King of Pop’s music and the importance in their own lives of taking part in the show. After that, director Kenny Ortega steps onto the rehearsal stage to explain how each concert would begin: a space-age Light Man floats onto stage, unfolds “Transformers”-style and Jackson steps out to reveal himself.
The first song we hear is “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” a single from 1982’s Thriller. As with almost all the tunes seen and heard throughout the movie, several performances are cut together to present a cohesive whole. At one point during the song, Jackson addresses his band, telling the musicians they have to make it more “funky” as he beatboxes an example of how the track should sound.
After further practice, we see Michael travel to London to publicly announce the concerts to be held at London’s O2 arena, calling the show a “final curtain call.”
Quickly, it’s back to rehearsal and the ending chant of “Startin’ Somethin’.” Now it’s time for the dancers to audition, as Ortega, choreographer Travis Payne and others run the prospective folks through a series of grueling tests. Jackson watches from the auditorium seats and says about one dancer, “She’s the one!”
There’s a performance of “Speechless” from Invincible before the scene cuts to a Culver City, California, soundstage, where Ortega is busy creating the cinematic elements that will accompany many numbers during the show. It’s here that 10 dancers will be turned into thousands via CGI technology to pair with “They Don’t Care About Us,” a single from 1995’s HIStory. The green screen is also the place where directors create a film-noir mash-up of scenes from classics like “Gilda” and “The Big Sleep,” into which Jackson is inserted, running from machine-gun fire and jumping through a glass window — a big introductory number for “Smooth Criminal.” Filmed in Culver City as well is a 3-D short for “Thriller” with a huge cemetery, zombies and ghosts. As it is shot, Jackson watches along, sucking on a lollipop and adding his thoughts.
The songs keep coming throughout, like a partially a cappella version of “Human Nature” and a rendition of “The Way You Make Me Feel” during which MJ obsessively ponders the arrangement. An entirely new, multicolor set comes in for a segment of Jackson 5 songs: “I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There.” In the movie, vintage video and photos play onscreen at times as Jackson sing and dances. He says he plans to thank his family by name, including his father Joe.
Other tracks in “This Is It” include “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Beat It,” “Black or White,” “Billie Jean” and “Earth Song,” which features a mini nature video complete with footage of elephants, dolphins and horses, plus a little girl wandering through a rainforest and playing with butterflies.
Michael planned to close the concert with “Man in the Mirror.” After giving a heartfelt speech to his dancers and musicians, who stood next to him clasping hands, Jackson performs the song solo onstage. The film ends with a simple freeze frame as the words “Michael Jackson, King of Pop” flash onscreen.
Through the approximate 105-minute running time, the picture that emerges of Michael Jackson is of a stubborn visionary who never loses his sense of humor. He’s a perfectionist who knows what he wants and is loath to compromise. He also seems reluctant to admit when he’s in the wrong, as with a humorous incident when he seems to forget the lyrics to a Jackson 5 song and instead blames a faulty earpiece.
Yet “This Is It” is undoubtedly a glowing portrait. Perhaps as notable as what we see in the film is what we don’t: No mention is made of the sordid details that have come to light surrounding his death nor, for that matter, that Jackson has passed away and the concerts will never be staged. Still, what “This Is It” offers is something you can get nowhere else: a look at MJ’s last days and the knowledge that as much as he lost, the man was still a genius to the end. As he announced after one song and, as no one could possibly argue otherwise, “We’re sizzling! We’re sizzling!”
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