This Is It is the Dark Knight of 2009. Heath Ledger’s immortal performance in last year’s blockbuster generated some of its considerable power from the notion that it was at least indirectly tied up in his tragic and untimely death, that the depths to which he plunged to inhabit the Joker cost him his psychological safety net. The same movie-as-obituary philosophy now goes for This Is It, only the parallel between the living artifact and the mortality at the center of it is, if anything, even more explicit. Bluntly, it would not have existed at all without Michael Jackson’s death. Compiled from countless hours of rehearsal footage shot as Jackson and his collaborators worked to pull together a splashy comeback concert tour, This Is It was conspicuously constructed to salvage not only the sweat and simoleons that went into the concert’s production (roughly $25 million, according to Entertainment Weekly), but also to give Jackson’s fans a slightly more uplifting epilogue to their idol’s lamentable saga than the one still being hashed out by district attorneys and medical examiners in California.
Like most pieces of moviemaking whose reason for existing dictates they be “more than a movie,” This Is It is remarkably less than a movie. From the very first scenes of Jackson going through the motions of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” singing only about every other line and marking his choreography instead of actually dancing, it’s patently clear this material was never truly meant for public consumption. And if that’s taken as a given, the logical follow-up question is: Why is it being presented to the public? And if you come up with any answer that doesn’t involve money, well, then you’re probably among those who think Jackson would somehow be thrilled with the idea that millions of people are now watching him wheeze tremulously into his headset microphone, pausing in between to apologize for saving his voice for the forthcoming concerts.
Given just how much material Kenny Ortega and his editors plowed through to whittle together a two-hour scrapbook and they still could only just barely come up with the presentable material here isn’t exactly a vindication. If anything, the relentlessly evasive nature of the movie only confirms the notion that if the prescriptions hadn’t killed Jackson first, the grueling list of engagements would very likely have done the job. Which is why This Is It is, in spite of all efforts made by Sony and their team of embalmers to obfuscate it, a genuinely haunted document. Haunted because of the concert that might have been (the lazy Sunday afternoon arrangement of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and Jackson’s completely unpolished rendition of “Billie Jean” were but two of the moments that made me swoon even in rehearsal form), and haunted within the enraptured, youthful faces of Jackson’s dancers, thrilled at the opportunity to work with the person who clearly molded their generation’s style, unaware that both the opportunity and the man who influenced them so deeply would both soon be gone.