Saturday, February 6, 2010

Blu-ray Music Review: Michael Jackson's This is It (2009)

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Whether it's remembering where you were when Elvis suggestively swiveled his way into scandalous stardom or recalling the deafening screams of teenage girls when Britain invaded America as The Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, every generation has musical moments they'll never forget.

For my generation, it was the awe and sheer innovation witnessed during the birth of the music video in the 1980s, and this was especially true when, in stark contrast to the cars and chicks who roared through heavy metal clips, some musicians took the format seriously as an art form.

To this end, some individuals created mini-movies for any given song. And long before he became known as The King of Pop yet long after he fronted his band of brothers via The Jackson Five, Michael Jackson became one of the greatest entertainers of the music video age, marking the musical moment I know I'll never forget when he starred in the frightening, fun, and fantastic video “Thriller.”

Also getting into near scrapes with "gang members" like actor Wesley Snipes in the Martin Scorsese helmed “Bad,” it never mattered which of his chart-topping singles from back-to-back record-breaking albums was playing as Jackson transcended what being a “singer” was by becoming our very first mixed media popular artist.

In doing so, he reminded an industry that had gotten way too corporate by this point that it didn't matter how much money was spent on anything since talent was talent and you either had it in you to entertain or you didn't. Needless to say, the King of Pop was 100% talent and likewise absolutely determined to entertain on all levels.

Yet, as time passed, legal accusations and trials came to light regarding one of the absolute worst offenses human beings can commit. And adding further controversy, Jackson's appearance altered towards lighter skinned androgyny after which he became mostly viewed as a “talented has-been” thanks to endless jokes flooding the airwaves from late night hosts who skewered the King of Pop on a regular basis.

Still even though he withdrew from the spotlight and became increasingly reclusive, Jackson remained strong and committed to his lifelong calling. Immensely loyal to his fans as the consummate entertainer, Jackson stunned the world by announcing an exclusive 50 city farewell tour suitably titled “This is It.”

Vowing that, unlike other musicians he wouldn't take 50 different bows in 50 different tours-- coming in and out of retirement-- MJ strove to craft another one of his mixed media masterpieces via an international series of concerts filled with the music that had become the soundtrack to not just his life but Generation X's as well.

Unfortunately, in a cruel twist of fate, Jackson passed away before the sold-out concerts were set to kick off at London's O2 arena in the summer of 2009. Yet, with the approval of the Michael Jackson Estate and out of respect for both Jackson and his beloved fans, creative collaborator Kenny Ortega (High School Musical) ensured that the man who had grown up on a stage would still follow the show biz dictum that “the show must go on.”

Culling from over one hundred hours of dancer auditions, technical tests, performance rehearsal footage, intimate interviews from those involved and conceptual discussions for every number, Ortega adapted what would've normally ended up in MJ's private collection for every single tour into a musical documentary unlike anything we've ever seen before.

Not a true concert piece, nor a mere portrait of a musician at a key time or a compilation documentary of a festival like The Last Waltz, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, I am Trying to Break Your Heart, Stop Making Sense, Gimme Shelter, or Woodstock, Ortega opted to keep Jackson's original tour name, adding an unexpected posthumous layer of poignancy in a one-of-a-kind look at one of music's most mysterious, talented, charismatic, yet controversial figures.

This is It chronicles Jackson's professional tour preparation from March up until June of last year when ironically Jackson took his final bow in the same month he would've taken it on stage in London on the first night of the “This is It" tour.

Building up a talented team working behind the scenes on the digital projection of video (including one 3-D experience for “Thriller”) to those joining the prestigious company of musicians and dancers that shared a stage-- however briefly-- with MJ, we're immediately struck by the reminder of his impact on lives when prospective dancers reveal they've flown in from as far away as Australia to see if they'll make the cut.

Yet, Ortega isn't interested in remaking A Chorus Line or Fame nor a big screen adaptation of Dancing With the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance as the primary focus in this film is on the man himself.

Exceedingly polite and unassuming, even when he's battling inner ear trouble in trying to negotiate the sound waves from several sources including music and direction, it's fairly easy to forget just how much we've underestimated him when we merely say he was a skilled singer and dancer.

For yes, of course, he is in a class by himself in both of the two vital musician traits and we get reminded of that fact throughout the film. However, as the movie continues and with the subconscious thought that you're watching his last months of life, it's MJ's legacy that proves the most impressive.

Just like Gregory Hines, Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and so many others, Jackson's influence on dance was huge, and he suddenly made it okay for Gen X and Y's young men (whether straight or gay) to share their masculine prowess in a physical area that didn't involve the male stereotypes of sex or violence.

And at the same time, the level of control and near operatic arranging of both the choreography and musicality of his work is enviable. Whether he mimics instruments with his voice or hits the highest notes in love songs or shows off his fellow dancers, he keeps us captivated to such an extent that the music can stop for a moment, his hand will go out, and in an inaudible count to three, the entire group will merge into one in an extraordinary display of dance unlike anything we've ever seen.

Overall, what Jackson represents through and through is showmanship to a degree that we just don't see today as some musicians simply wander onstage and lip-sync or play obscure songs in exchange for ticket prices that are equal to that of a brand new computer.

With impressive video components to “Smooth Criminal,” featuring video footage of Rita Hayworth in Gilda and old Humphrey Bogart Film Noirs to 3-D and props that I'm imagining would've been outstanding to see utilized live, the one constant thought you're faced with during Ortega's film is the bittersweet realization that this really was it.

Thus, regardless of how you felt about the man given the controversy or how many times you watched his music videos growing up, there's no doubt that Ortega's extraordinary documentary will open your eyes to a more intimate, unpolished, and completely natural portrait of Michael Jackson. Likewise, the work is one that at long last, finally grants us access to see what he's really like when he isn't answering prepared questions in TV interviews or onstage at a music awards show since this footage was originally intended to be kept private.

Of course, it is quite sad to realize that he was never able to put on the show that he'd painstakingly devised with Ortega and others. Nonetheless, part of the extreme beauty of this Sony Blu-ray that boasts exceptionally crisp picture and sound is that with its release along with a wonderful 2-CD companion set as well, many more individuals who couldn't have afforded or gotten into the sold-out concerts are finally granted access to yet another musical moment that I know they won't forget.

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.