Two days ago we saw “This is it”, the film of the rehearsals for Michael Jackson’s planned last concert series that never took place.
I was never much of a MJ fan — “Thriller” happened when I was under 10, and by the time “Bad” happened he was already being viewed as a bit of a joke, with his skin-bleaching and plastic surgery and oxygen tents and whatnot. By the time I started listening to rock and blues (and, later, jazz), the Michael Jackson brand of pop seemed too tame.
After he died, my view was coloured by articles like this one. Supposedly the guy was skeletal, unable to sing let alone dance, and only being kept alive by insane quantities of medication; if he hadn’t died before the scheduled 50-concert series, he would not have survived that ordeal.
So it was a surprise to see Jackson in the movie. Thin he certainly was — skeletal, it was harder to say. But the rest?
He could sing, and did sing. He wasn’t lip-syncing. His voice was a bit different from the old days, still high and child-like but somewhat thicker (an improvement, in my opinion). He talked frequently about needing to “preserve his voice”, but it sounded more like hypochondria than a real problem — no doubt it was a bigger problem than even he knew, but it did not show in the performances. “I just can’t stop loving you”, in particular, ended in an extraordinary extended bluesy call-and-response sequence between him and a female singer that would not have sounded out-of-place on a 1950s album from Chess Records, and showed some improvisational ability that I had never associated with him.
He could dance. Not like a 20-year-old, but better than most 50-year-olds, and certainly not like someone who only had weeks to live.
He was in control. Directing the choreography, the film-editing, and the musicians with authority — telling the lighting and video people to “watch his cue”, telling them that he would sense the video changes without needing to see them, telling his musicians to prolong a pause and “let it simmer”…
And the musicians were outstanding. If I had expected MJ to lip-sync his performances, I had also expected him to use recorded music, like most other pop singers these days. But no, he had a small, tight band — two guitars, bass, keyboard, drums — and while what they did wasn’t too different from his recordings, it sounded much punchier and more intimate. The bass was funky — I’d never noticed a bass in MJ before. The lead guitarist, a young woman called Orianthi Panagaris, ripped it up, not missing a step even when MJ was dancing in her face and all over her guitar. “Black and white” climaxed with a guitar duel between her and another guitarist. I found I could relate to the music: I could hear Motown and the blues in it, which I never did before, perhaps because I never listened to it very much, or perhaps because it was over-produced.
Kenny Ortega chose to put together a raw montage from the rehearsals, consisting of complete or nearly-complete songs, some shots of the team planning the performance, some interviews with the crew, and nothing else. It is obvious that an enormous effort must go into an MJ show — let alone a 50-night run — but the sheer scale of it all hadn’t really come home to me. Nor had the level of commitment and enthusiasm of all the performers and crew, and their interaction with MJ, who was like a god to most of them. It must have been absolutely shattering for them when Jackson died a week before the concerts. But this movie has brought them to a wider audience than they would have planned for. I expect to hear more of Orianthi Panagaris, in particular.