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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Michael Jackson jams with Orianthi Panagaris, his extraordinary guitarist.
Honesty requires me to confess that I was never a big Michael Jackson fan. Yes, like most people, I loved the “Thriller” album when it was originally released, but so much of what MJ did in the following years turned me off to the point where his musical abilities were clouded in my mind. For starters, the man was relentlessly weird. I also resented his image as something of a musical Messiah. It seemed to overtake him. At one point, there were allegations that, when he appeared on an awards show or made some other public appearance, he brought with him audio of ecstatic crowds going wild, just in case the real reaction wasn’t strong enough. I vividly remember seeing him on a late-90’s awards show; the crowded sounded like it was in rapture, but when the camera panned to the audience, they were politely sitting in their seats clapping.

And then there were the allegations about children. I know, I know – those allegations were never proven. Regardless, I recall Jackson’s interview with the journalist Martin Brashear, in which he admitted having slumber parties for children and sleeping in the same bed with them. If I did that, people would call me a pedophile and call for my castration. But when it was Michael Jackson…

Well, you get my drift. I bring this up because I thought that I was perhaps not the best person to review Michael Jackson’s This Is It, and I fully acknowledge seeing the film solely out of professional obligation. It is a measure of how good This Is It is that I forgot all my MJ bias while I watched it and actually had a good time.

The movie, directed by Kenny Ortega, consists solely of rehearsal footage for the tour MJ was about to mount before his untimely passing. We see Jackson, his band, and his dancers practicing and doing run-throughs of the show. Since it was rehearsal, not everything was being used. The light show wasn’t in effect, and Jackson (by his own admission) occasionally conserved his voice and energy for the tour itself. What’s really amazing is that, in spite of these limitations, it’s a dazzling show. Had the world been able to see it come to full fruition, there’s little doubt that Jackson would have experienced a major career resurgence.

I love how This Is It avoids the kind of messianic fervor that characterized Jackson’s career, even after his popularity had waned. With the exception of a few brief interview clips with musicians and dancers, there is none of that breathless fawning over Jackson. The man’s work is simply allowed to speak for itself. There could be no more fitting tribute.

What we see is an artist fully in control of his own vision. Jackson knows what he wants. He’s able to pick up on the minutest of details – things other people would scarcely notice. And yet, while he is a perfectionist, he is not a tyrant. MJ treats everyone around him with respect, even when things aren’t going right. There’s not a trace of diva attitude to be found. Jackson’s only concern is putting on the best show possible for his fans. Watching him perfect and craft that show is fascinating.

Despite being very thin, MJ comes across as remarkably healthy considering he died not long after this footage was taken. His energy never wanes. Vocally and dance-wise, he’s in top form. We now know the troubles that were haunting him off-stage, yet there’s no trace of them here. We see a man ready to take the world by storm again.

Ortega (who co-created the show with Jackson) structures the movie so that it gives, as closely as possible, the experience of what the tour would have been. At times, he even uses computer simulations of some of the more elaborate effects that were planned. For instance, for the “Thriller” song, Jackson filmed a special 3-D movie to play on the overhead screens. His dancers were to dress up as undead, and ghosts would fly over the audience. Of course, since the show never came to pass, we can’t see the full effect, but Ortega cuts together footage from the 3-D movie, tests of the flying ghosts, and mostly full-costumed rehearsing. It’s enough that we can get a feel for what might have been.

The songs, of course, are some of the most beloved in the history of pop music. You’ll hear all your favorites, performed by an astoundingly tight band. In fact, my favorite thing about This Is It is Jackson’s guitar player, the extraordinary Orianthi Panagaris. She’s one of the most accomplished, hypnotic guitarists I’ve ever heard. The only time in this movie that you take your eyes off MJ is when she’s on screen.

The footage in This Is It was never intended to be seen by the public; it was just for Jackson’s own personal use. For that reason, I suspect it gives us a more accurate portrait of the artist than any of his “official” public appearances ever could. He’s got no reason to play to the camera here, no reason to try to fulfill that larger-than-life image. I walk away from the picture with an increased respect and appreciation for Michael Jackson. Regardless of anything else, This Is It makes it clear that he was a man of endless creativity, whose professional goal in life was simply to make people happy by sharing his talents to the best of his ability.

( 1/2 out of four)

Michael Jackson's This Is It is rated PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.

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