Wednesday, November 04, 2009

This Is It

Tonight I saw the documentary This is It, directed by Kenny Ortega.

When I was about seven years old, MTV began playing three videos in heavy rotation that would re-define pop music: "Billie Jean", "Beat It" and "Thriller". They were all superb songs and they were all by Michael Jackson.

When I brought home my fold-out vinyl of the Thriller album, I momentarily put away my beloved U2 and Pat Benatar to absorb its greatness. I bought a sticker from a grocery store vending machine and used a straight pin to attach it to my jacket (which resembled one of Michael's). I also, as an aspiring young writer, carried with me a tiny notepad bearing his likeness on the cover (I still remember the yellow sweater he was wearing). He was the moonwalker—he was magic.

Then things took a turn for the worse and fame seemed to eat my prized star alive. His skin changed color, his face changed shape and horrible allegations surfaced in the coming years that he conducted inappropriate relationships with young boys. After his follow up album Bad, which really was quite Good, his music faltered as well.

He was always fascinating to watch whether he was showing up for court appearances "looking like Captain Crunch" (as Chris Rock so humorously pointed out), or dancing his way across a stage. But I really thought he lost his mind when I watched the Martin Bashir documentary Living With Michael Jackson a few years back. He'd named his youngest son Blanket, admitted to having children sleep in his bed with him and blatantly lied about how many times he'd had plastic surgery. There wasn't much left of the sweet kid from the Jackson 5.

After dismissing him, like many, I forgot about him. I went on about my life.

And then in June word came that Michael had gone into cardiac arrest and fallen into some sort of coma. I learned of this at work and found it difficult to turn CNN off as I finished my days' duties. I turned the audio live feed on as I filed papers and wrote Web pages. I heard of his death announcement live. I got goosebumps; I felt sick. Why? Because at the end of the day, looking past all of the questions of his character, the world lost an immense talent.

Now, we're left with this documentary that could easily have been released even if he had lived. It's that good.

We see director/choreographer Kenny Ortega and Michael himself leading a group of hundreds through the taxing rehearsals for what would've been his "final curtain call." From choosing the finest dancers to forming a family within the performance circle, the team functions as a productive, joyous machine. It's an incredible amount of hard work, but the mood is remarkably calm and positive—mostly a testament to Michael's lack of ego.

I'm not saying he didn't have one. Of course he had several people on hand to attend to him (which the audience doesn't see much of), but with his singers and dancers and crew, the man is nothing short of a team player. He works just as hard (or harder) than they do and takes obvious pleasure when they all perform well. After watching him in action, you want to jump on stage and join him.

It does help that the songs hold up, too. The elaborate appearing-within-a-classic-film production that surrounds "Smooth Criminal" would've made a wonderful video (if a wonderful video for the same song didn't already exist) and seeing Michael sing and do the "Thriller" dance front and center over 20 years later nearly made me giddy.

This wasn't a man who looked strung out on anything but a natural high. In fact, when he launched into some old Jackson 5 tunes, I wondered if the mood would turn melancholy, but it didn't. Then I realized, in all of his miserable childhood, the one place he was probably genuinely happy was on stage, singing those songs. No one could touch him there—everyone was proud of his talent.

And he was brimming with talent. Right up until the end (some of the footage in the film was taken less than two days prior to his death) his voice was strong, his dance was graceful and his spirits were soaring.

Had he lived, he appears to have been up for the challenge of 50 consecutive concerts, perhaps more so than any other performer.

Kudos to Kenny Ortega for giving us all a peek at what might have been.


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