Wednesday, October 28, 2009

THIS IS IT...for the fans!

"All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy. What right have we then to depreciate imagination?" - Carl Jung

One of the great ironies of Michael Jackson's THIS IS IT is made apparent near the beginning of the film: during a luminescent solo performance of Human Nature, the barrier between audience and star falls so totally, we suddenly rediscover Jackson more painfully clear than would have been possible even during the live concerts that fell eight short days from taking place.

Dance sequences that unfold in chronological order (both in the sequence they were arranged, and in terms of physical production) never reach the point of full dress rehearsal, but are made all the more powerful by their sense of inertia. One can literally see each number progressing from concept in Jackson's head to full-blown (some might say overblown) execution. It is also clear from the outset that Jackson, for all of his quirks and whims, is in charge. No shrinking violet, he is firm yet curiously approachable. One laughs at the squirm-factor in watching his choreographer, music director, etc. gingerly approach him when they have questions. And at times Jackson too is struggling for the answers.

One thing that sets the King of Pop apart from many of his contemporaries was his fundamental understanding of the mythic quality of his own music. Well aware that songs like Beat It and Thriller had long since been absorbed into the DNA of our culture, Jackson refashions them all into something familiar and still new. The snippets of filmed sequences we are allowed to see (including a brilliant reworking of Smooth Criminal interspersed with clips of period film stars like Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart) push collective memories in new directions. Jackson's vision drives the production, and that alone is a mighty thing to witness.

That vision is what we watch him struggle to articulate throughout. In one particular sequence, Jackson abruptly stops mid-rehearsal to gently chastise his crew for "pushing the music" into his ears. Even when questioned by his offscreen collaborator, production (and film) director Kenny Ortega, about what can be done to resolve the issue, Jackson never quite manages to express his obvious frustration in terms the movie audience can respond to other than laughter. His struggle to communicate using a vocabulary derived from a life lived onstage is at times heartbreaking, and credit should be given to Ortega for inclusion of this odd, revealing moment.

For those who may be wondering, there is nothing of note that suggests why the concerts would never actually take place. THIS IS IT as documentary exists in unapologetic fashion for Jackson's fans, and boasts this as its pedigree. It's a movie without pretense, possibly because the footage was never intended to be seen, and that candor gives the movie freedom to unfold. Just shy of being sentimental, it is always reverent toward the entertainer.

The movie also is a chronicle of the other players in the concerts' development, the dancers, musicians, designers and more who all found themselves in the service of their quirky, inscrutable King. Watching key players reveal themselves as lifelong fans helps link film to audience. Unlike a traditional concert documentary, this one exudes power via intimacy despite the enormity. Watching Jackson work himself through pop pugatory while rehearsing Billie Jean, each footstep building in intensity, it's not the cheering of thousands of fans that lends the performance power: instead it's the cheering of his dancers, reduced once more to fans. Seeing their enthusiasm fuel Jackson's, even as he keeps a measure of his wattage in reserve, the song takes on a new life.

While one can only speculate what was left on the cutting room floor - although we know footage from June 26th was purposely omitted - the lingering image THIS IS IT leaves of Jackson is a good one. This is no bloated Elvis forgetting lyrics in front of a crowd, conspicuously approaching the end. At 50 years old, Jackson appears in full command of the powers that both his fans and detractors took for granted.

One last personal observance: the Empire State Building was conceived and built in record time of under a year and a half. It stood for decades as the tallest building in the world, and remains a benchmark of design, and a defining landmark of its city. There was nothing like it before it existed and there still isn't...but what if it had never been completed? What if construction had been halted a month or so prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony? What if it had just vanished, and all that remained of it was the record of its construction? Imagine no one ever being able to describe life from the highest vantage point possible.

Jackson looked genuinely happy during much of THIS IS IT. Though he never reached the observation deck, it's nice to know even he wanted to scale new heights above his empire.

That might have ultimately proven to be the King of Pop's crowning achievement.

"Sometimes, indeed, there is such a discrepancy between the genius and his human qualities that one has to ask oneself whether a little less talent might not have been better." - Carl Jung (1875 - 1961)

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