There is no getting around the obvious exploitation factor at play. Regardless of how tasteful and respectful this film is, at the end of the day, Sony paid $60 million for the rights to this otherwise private footage because they wanted to cash in on the sudden and shocking death of its star. But if you can dissociate the material from the motive for its production, Kenny Ortega's This Is It works as a low-key farewell to a generational icon. As a Michael Jackson fan in the 80s and early 90s, I had always hoped that he could get his musical act together and go out with a dash of style (truth be told, he hadn't released a truly good album in nearly twenty-years). The underlying tragedy of this documentary is the realization of how close Jackson may have been to getting the comeback that his fans were yearning for.
A token amount of plot - the feature basically spans the last couple months of Jackson's life, detailing the rehearsal sessions for his upcoming 50-concert comeback tour that was to be his probable farewell to live performing. We see about a dozen songs, performed in clips from a few different rehearsals, with token tidbits of behind the scenes footage and previews of what would eventually be the multimedia supplements for each song (ie - 3D zombie movies for "Thriller", a mini-movie with Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart for "Smooth Criminal"). What is most impressive is how strictly the film adheres to its business at hand. There are no side-stories, only a few brief testimonials, and nary a hint of the ultimate fate of this concert that everyone was so proud to be a part of. The vast majority of the running time is all about the production and rehearsals that went into the would-be tour itself. The only sentiment comes from Michael Jackson himself, as he occasionally opines about the state of the environment.
However interesting this stuff is as a time-capsule, the fact still remains that this is rehearsal footage, and thus you're not seeing Jackson at his peak, or even giving it his all in any given performance. He mentions several times that he's trying not to tax his voice prior to the actual performances, and his dancing is often half-hearted at best. Intentional or not, there is a disturbing undertone at play, as we wonder whether the forgotten song lyrics, physical hesitations, and sometimes underwhelming performance was merely the product of the rehearsal process, or an accidental glimpse of a 50-year old musician struggling to perform like the 25-year old who changed the world half a lifetime ago.
Still, if the King of Pop is no longer the young man who first moon-walked at the Motown 25th Anniversary Celebration in 1983, he is certainly willing to cede the occasional spotlight to those around him. Some of the best footage involves the back-up singers and musicians who got to live out their dream of performing with their idol. In fact, since much of the footage is the standard video quality, the core appeal of the IMAX format is getting a chance to really listen to the actual music that inspired a generation of young artists ("Beat It" has a killer guitar solo that's up there with "Johnny Be Good" or "Purple Haze"). And Jackson certainly seems grateful to the talent that he has at his fingertips, and his few attempts to be a stern taskmaster come off as genuinely comical.
Whether or not the motives behind this picture are pure (director Kenny Ortega seems genuinely interested in honoring his friend), This Is It remains an interesting curiosity that avoids both tawdry sensationalism and lionization (no mention is made of either his personal life or his untimely death). But there is also a clear lack of any kind of illumination to who Jackson really was. Even during private rehearsals, he still seems 'on', so don't expect any kind of unguarded moments or epiphanies about this deeply private man. Whether or not This Is It needs to be seen in theaters is an open question, but it's certainly a must-own DVD for the most devoted Michael Jackson fans. Me? I'll stick with my CDs of Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad, preferring to remember him during the period when he was truly the king of pop.