It's been a good year for has-beens and celebrities who just won't go away. Grizzled old Brett Favre returned to pro football yet again, whaling on the Green Bay Packers twice in a month while playing for his old team's biggest rival and looking as good as he has in 13 years. Now Michael Jackson, whose bizarre personal behavior and substance abuse reached its inevitable end with his sudden death last June, has risen from the grave and slide-stepped into the limelight once more. But Michael Jackson's This Is It is not just a morbid attempt to cash in on a dead pop star's fame. Instead, director and show choreographer Kenny Ortega's hi-definition video diary of Jackson's last tour rehearsals is the year's most tantalizing and invigorating documentary.
Culled from hours of rehearsal footage, This Is It's trajectory is dully straightforward: song, commentary from crew/musician/dancer, choreographer, production meeting, song, commentary, etc. But what separates This Is It from hundreds of how'd-he-do-that movies and TV shows is its subject. This is Michael Jackson, after all, the last undisputed ruler of a pop landscape too diffuse and specialized to need, much less conjure up, such a figure again. Alas, his tenure as "The King of Pop" seems to have taken its toll. Jackson looks ill and alien throughout the film. Pasty and emaciated in odd-fitting jackets and high pants, he looks like an R&B Lear — a cross between The Nightmare Before Christmas' Jack Skellington and Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.
But as he sings and dances — tentatively at first, testing out his 50-year-old legs and throat — he grows freer and more confident until he hardly seems earthbound. His footwork remains unimpeachable, and the speed and precision of the arm snaps and ankle shakes that punctuate "Human Nature" and "Smooth Criminal" are nearly otherworldly, as if he were trying to catch the sounds he hears from the air around him. Rehearsal footage with his band shows just how uncannily attuned Jackson was to the nuances and pacing of his songs and grooves; not even James Brown in his heyday approached Jackson's genius for the way sound and movement intertwine.
The gap between the power of the half-complete performances collected here, his dancers' awe at Jackson's expressive genius, and the performer's casual self-assessment is often astonishing. After a dazzling, turn-back-the-clock run-through of "Billie Jean," complete with moonwalk, Jackson shrugs and says, "Well, at least we have a little bit of a feel for it," while his dancers and crew cheer wildly. During a vocal improvisation near the end of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," he tests out his falsetto chops and then sheepishly declares that he shouldn't perform that way because he's trying to save his lungs. The muse moved through him whether or not he wanted it to.
The power and resourcefulness of such a confounding creator is never in doubt during This Is It. And after years of wondering, I finally see what his mock-crucifixion pose is about; it's an offering of grace to his fans. Accept it.