Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 12, 2009 9:56 pm 
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This is Michael Jackson, still brilliant at the last

As music documentaries go, This Is It is not really so unusual. Kenny Ortega, of the High School Musical franchise, is good at covering song and dance, but he's a journeyman rather than a genius and his aim is to please not to thrill or explore. There's not much variety here. Despite some film shoots within the film shoot of elaborate projection pieces to be used in the tour that never was, and a few quick emotional and adulatory interviews, cheers from the crew so to speak, most of this consists of rehearsals, and not from many points of view. There's a vast team on hand of dancers, singers, musicians, and stage crew, yet we don't get an in depth picture of their work. The music is all pretty familiar.

But on the other hand, this is the last living record we have of one of the great performers of the last century, because the show that was to play in fifty cities for the fifty-year-old singer and dancer who had not toured for a decade, was Michael Jackson. And whatever you may have heard, he is in top form, and this is a close look at his artistry and genius. And also, ironically perhaps, the nicest of men, with a heart of gold.

Rumors were about that Jackson was "frail" (he is very thin) and faltering. He holds back, especially to save his voice. Sometimes maybe he's just going loosely through the motions of the dances. But Michael Jackson going loosely through the motions is still something to see. And there's no faltering. In fact what's striking is the man's form and discipline at all times; his professionalism; his humility and good manners; and his perfectionism. He knows exactly what he wants. He knows the tempos and rhythms. Mostly he wants the songs to sound the way they do on the albums. The performances will differ, the performers have been hired for the tour. But he's not looking for innovation; he's looking for perfection.

As for the dancing, which is the main thing, of course it doesn't have the energy and excitement of earlier MJ performances. But it's composed, precise, stylish, elegant at all times. He is the leader. It is a unique pleasure, a matter of awe really, to watch him move. His moves were always evolving at every stage of his long performing life, and they're at a further point here. Above all watching him is to delight in the precision, the clarity of the movies, the extension and grace. There's no sign of aging in the movement that you see. You do wonder a little bit how he was going to make it through a tour of fifty cities, if he is concerned about saving his voice. We'll never know. But there would have been ways to get around that. He could have done it. This was no vanity project. The confidence and composure are there. And genius, otherworldly talent.

It's nice to see Michael Jackson going out this way: working in good form, and working cooperatively and with authority. As crew members say, he's "hands-on" all the way. He's there watching all the details, not hounding or obnoxious but, again, precise, pointing out when the tempo picks up too fast or doesn't go down slow enough or where a moment needs to be allowed to breathe. You'd think he was directing the whole show (which he wasn't), but doing so seamlessly and with a light but firm touch. This certainly was a consummate professional. And despite the fact that his education might have been sketchy, his world on the solipsistic side, he speaks articulately and sensibly. He sets a good standard of communication and leadership. He may be a tricky megastar with a history of erratic behavior, but we see none of that. Good manners and clear communication prevail. Mostly he points out others' mistakes, but always gently. Sometimes he points out his own mistake. "I'm sorry guys," he says at one point. "There is no second verse. We just go right to the bridge." But then, he forgives himself as readily as he forgives others: "That's why we have rehearsals."

That's why we have rehearsals! Yes! But thankfully, we had these also because of the record they provide of what it's like to rehearse a big production and what it was like to work with Michael. The sequences are touching and beautiful, and the music recalls some magic moments, but they're also sad, because they reassure us of what we have lost. Michael could still put on an incredible show. This might have been one of the most tasteful and meaningful tours. This one seems to go easy on the corn and the crotch-grabbing (though a dancing coach is seen practicing a group of male dancers in just that). It's also without a moon-walk. And that's okay, because Jackson is replaying old songs, but not copying himself. His moves still feel improvised, natural to him, never forced. They flow out of him and are part of him. This is his essence. And he's having a good time. And shy shouldn't he be? This is a big crew packed with firm admirers, and their only desire is to please him.

Despite the years of scandal and craziness, there are people that want to be Michael Jackson. For them he is what he was for himself, a performer to emulate. While you may see this as a promotional film, its subject is something worth promoting, pure pop genius and a dancer even Fred Astaire, for very good reasons -- there's a kinship there -- admired. For them and for any of us, this film is a worthy and fascinating record, something, like the Motown 25 performance, that you can watch many times and not get tired of. It's all about the moves. Above all this is a celebration of the art of dance.

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