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Surprises from This Is It February 12, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Reviews, You did ask - didn't you?.
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Some time ago I sat at a Mexican restaurant in Nashville with a writer friend of mine and a couple of folks from a music promotions company. These were fascinating folks, dropping names as far-ranging as Bono and Liza Minnelli. Before too long the conversation turned to Michael Jackson. One of the publicists has a sister who had recently flown out (to L.A., I think) to audition as a dancer for MJ’s big farewell concert series. I was less in-the-know than the rest of the folks around the table, and I confessed that I didn’t know he was doing a big farewell concert tour. “Oh, not a tour,” they informed me. “He’s scheduled 50 shows in London. All sold out.” Then we started a little prediction game called How many shows will MJ actually perform? No one at the table thought he would do all 50. In fact, the majority vote was zero. “He’ll cancel just before the first show,” someone said, suggesting some medical excuse. Of course, not a single one of us remotely imagined he would die.

I remember this dinner conversation now because last night we watched This Is It, the documentary of rehearsal footage before the concerts that would never happen. I was really, really surprised by the movie, and I came away with loads of observations to share (see the category of this post). I’ll list them below, in order from least surprising to most surprising:

1. MJ was weird.
We knew this, right? The clothes, the plastic surgery, the weird liner notes and quotes, the lawsuits, the dangling baby. Weird stuff. The credits from This Is It acknowledge the children and even give the youngest a nickname: “Blanket”. In the movie, he has a penchant for weird lines, like declaring “It’s all about the love, L-O-V-E” while discussing some technical issue. He and Carlos Santana could have had quite a conversation.

2. No one ever told him no.
This has been cited as one of the reasons for his death. It’s apparent in the movie, but in a much less morbid sense. Wherever he is, he is the king holding court. Every suggestion is implemented without question, whether the implementer thinks it’s a good idea or not. During one song, Michael is singing ahead of the band. Their tempos are slightly off, and we don’t see any ultimate resolution. I wondered aloud who had the correct tempo. I suspect it was the band, since they had to learn how to play the song together. I also suspect that if Michael wanted a slightly faster tempo, the band would accommodate. And here’s the thing: musically, visually, from an entertainment perspective, no one might dare question MJ’s opinion, but his opinion was probably always right. He had an uncanny ability to entertain, and it’s on display in spades in the film.

3. He did not look his age.
This is on the less-surprising end of my observations because everyone knows about his changing face, but I was watching the movie and thinking, “FIFTY? Really? How is that possible?” He looked much younger, but he also moved and acted and spoke much younger.

4. They were filming concert backdrop videos in 3D.
You saw the clip from the Grammys. They also made a whole new video for Thriller in 3D. But this was for a live concert. Were the people at the concert supposed to put on 3D glasses only during the film clips? Because the performers, standing there live, are obviously already three dimensional. I know I’m late in the game here, discussing MJ after the movie has come out on DVD, so somebody has probably already cleared this up, but surely they didn’t expect the ravenous concert-goers to keep their 3D glasses handy for certain video clips, did they?

5. The sound and visuals were incredible.
I expected grainy, hand-held camera footage with muddled sound. Instead, we got expertly edited, up-close-and-personal shots and full-bodied sound from out of the board, with a wonderful mix of instruments, BGVs, and MJ.

6. He could still dance.
From all I had seen and heard following his death, I assumed Jackson was in a feeble, decrepit state, so I did not expect much of the old flash. I was wrong. He can hardly stand still in the movie, and his extended dance sequences are astonishing. See observation number three.

And the most surprising observation of all:

7. I would have loved this concert.
With all of his public missteps and cancelled appearances and bizarre press, suffice it to say I would not have been on a plane to London to see the show. I wouldn’t have turned down a ticket, mind you, but I would have had the lowest of expectations. Shoot, my dinner companions and I would have been pleased if the concert date on the ticket actually happened. Now, having watched the rehearsals, I would have been blown away. The dancers were phenomenal. Maybe they could put on a few shows with just a backing track for the music. The band was tight and featured a keyboard player named – I kid you not – Mo Pleasure. The props looked great: Michael emerging from inside a giant robot to open, then being devoured by a giant bulldozer after Earth Song. And the music. Say what you will about the man, and after watching the bizarre pseudo-prayer circle and the proclamation that the Earth would die in four years, you can say plenty, but the music is still tops.

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