Smooth criminal or fragile humanitarian? Eternally childlike or mortally flawed? Black or white? Might not the late Michael Jackson have been all of the above? As for Kenny Ortega, the longtime MJ associate entrusted to whittle three-and-a-half hours of rehearsal footage down to less than two, he was obviously never going to be Barbara Kopple or Albert Maysles, much less Pedro Costa or Frederick Wiseman. But at least Ortega’s “This Is It” allows us to see the self-anointed King of Pop as a moonwalking mass of contradictions right to the end, which is about as much as one could reasonably want from a posthumous cash-in whose printed prologue rushes to praise MJ’s “passionate gift,” a work of literal deadline journalism whose stated responsibility is to “the fans.”
Still, for some — that is, roughly a smidgen of the zillions who’ll flock to “This” — as much as one could reasonably want will be more than they can bear. Driven to protect their late idol even after he’s gone, a subset of die-hards have boycotted the movie for presumably rewarding those close collaborators who didn’t do enough to save their heavily medicated and rail-thin boss between early March and June 25. As if addressing this very constituency, Ortega includes himself in the film asking Jackson — perturbed by a pesky headset whose sound is “like a fist in my ear” — whether there’s anything the crew can do for him, gently reminding the superstar that all he needs to do for help is ask.
However unintended, “This Is It” testifies to a truth older than “HIStory”: Faced with the untimely death of a loved one, the grief-stricken can find it more comforting to pin the tragedy on others (in this case, Ortega, et al.), even or especially when, on some level, the deceased could be said to have done it to himself. Another thing is more certain still: Fist in his ear, machine-gun blazing for “Smooth Criminal,” a digital army at his command in “They Don’t Care About Us,” the MJ of “This” is a man whose metaphors are exceedingly violent — at least until the world-healing finale, wherein we learn that the King of Pop loved trees, too.
Those teeming undead of “Thriller,” ordered by Jackson to terrorize the concert crowd in 3D, are nothing if not the artist’s personal demons, resurrected more or less intact from their first appearance in 1982 — when, it must be said, they appeared a helluva lot fresher. Supernatural energy he had, indeed, but the vision of nostalgia MJ mustered for his comeback shows looks exceedingly tired. No wonder his other notable metaphor — issued as an instruction to his keyboardist — likens the obligatory opening of “The Way You Make Me Feel” to “dragging yourself out of bed.”
So yeah, despite its salutary intentions, “This Is It” works plenty well as a psychological study of a pop star at or near the end of his microphone cord. The film’s unmistakable high point — it gave me goose bumps, to be honest — is MJ’s pained falsetto on a rough run-through of “Human Nature”: The singing is unspeakably beautiful, for starters, added to which is the poignancy of the lyrics, as human nature is obviously something the perfectionist performer often found difficult or impossible to emulate.
Beyond that haunting passage, no longer than a minute or two, “This Is It” generously accommodates one’s desire to view Jackson’s self-described “final curtain call” as, well, overwhelmingly pathetic — weird but never kinky, downright tacky in conception as well as costuming, and, above all, extremely familiar. Reprising even Bob Giraldi’s line-dance choreography for the “Beat It” video, Jackson seems to want to have shown that, at 50, he could do it exactly the same as he did it at 25 — as if art is an exercise in taxidermic (or surgical) preservation rather than a natural evolution, what you and I would consider human nature.
In all fairness to Ortega (or maybe it’s an insult, I don’t know), it should be said that his work on “This” had largely been done even before he entered the editing room. If Entertainment Weekly‘s recent curtain-peeling cover story is to be believed, a “team of editors” (or lawyers?) selected Ortega’s usable material from a whopping 120 hours of footage. A countless number of radically dissimilar films could’ve been sculpted out of that mountain; one can only fantasize about, say, Nick Broomfield’s brilliantly bottom-feeding cut, wherein the fans camped outside L.A.’s Staples Center are somehow implicated in the “murder.”
Maybe it’s even fairer to say that the great MJ documentary had already been made more than a decade ago — that is, “Living With Michael Jackson,” the prime-time network special-cum-all-access shocker that Martin Bashir amazingly delivered with at least some degree of his subject’s consent. The ultimate measure of Jackson’s combustible mix of vulnerability and control, resolved only through his death, “Living With Michael Jackson” (check the Internet for “showtimes”) stands as a pricelessly rare rebuttal of the formula by which celebrity docs amount to little more than products of carefully controlled PR. Maybe MJ, in that screening room in the sky, could begin to forgive Bashir for his guerrilla infiltration of Neverland and see “Living” as something valuably closer than “This” to the real deal.