Cultural Analyst Jeff Koch takes an insightful but benevolent look at the King of Pop’s final creation.
At the time of Michael Jackson’s death in June of last year he was preparing a comeback show, a string of 50 dates at London’s O2 Arena. The shows were to be his triumphant return to the stage and (hopefully) to a spotlight that focused on his immense talent rather than his troubling life. His design was to put on the biggest, most spectacular show ever constructed. And perhaps his ambitions were even larger. Maybe the shows were also an attempt at a curtain call for his life and his career, one last reminder of his stature as the King of Pop, and a chance to reclaim and cement his legacy as the world’s greatest performer.
Sadly, Jackson died before even a single show could be performed. We’ll never know just how large and how powerful the show could have been. But based upon the footage of the final dress rehearsals in This Is It, it would have been immense and spectacular.
The first thing you notice at the beginning of the movie is just how skinny and frail Jackson is. It’s startling, and it’s an immediate and visceral reminder of the physical and emotional pain he was in at the time of his death. He looks as if he shouldn’t be able to walk, let alone dance or sing.
But make no mistake: the man can still move, and he can still sing. When it comes to dancing, the world has never seen anything like Michael Jackson. His movements are totally unique and alien, simultaneously staccato and legato, syncopated and creating their own time. He can still slither and glide across the across the stage, and he can still connect with an audience of millions simply by a flick of the head or a shake of a leg. And his voice is still amazing. In the rehearsals captured for the film, he is really holding back to preserve his voice for the shows, but the ability still shines through, hitting every note within his range with ease. The performances of “Human Nature” and “Earth Song” are particularly moving.
In a Michael Jackson show, the dancing and the music really can’t be separated; it’s a performance, with both parts holding equal sway. The choreography and the spectacle of the people and the movement is superb. Every song has hundreds of intricately choreographed moves and perhaps thousands of moving pieces, all flowing seamlessly into one working unit. Jackson is able to float in and out of the larger spectacle of the show, working as both a free-lance artist and as the most vital cog in the machine. The back-up dancers work wonderfully with Michael, becoming an extension of him and of the show. The show is a treat simply to just watch.
But it’s also a feast for the ears. The songs sound alive and vibrant, richer and fuller than perhaps even the studio recordings. They are arranged uniquely, with lots of tempo and feel changes. It’s no surprise that the band is comprised of top-notch professional musicians, and they don’t miss a thing. Almost all of the musical cues are triggered by Jackson himself, and often at his whim, and the band hits every one of them flawlessly.
In the movie, Jackson reveals himself as a sort of benevolent dictator. He is in command of every single aspect of the show, from the dancers to the lighting to the band to the visual show behind him. It is very obvious that he knows every single one of his songs inside and out, and knows exactly where everything should be and when. There isn’t one tiny detail of the show that he isn’t aware of and hasn’t worked out.
In this regard, more than anything else, the movie reveals Jackson’s true genius. He completely inhabits his music and reveals his true self in it. Once the song kicks in, this whisper of a man is transformed into a dancing and singing powerhouse, the greatest performer of our generation, and still worthy of the moniker given to him so many years ago, The King of Pop.
Still, it’s impossible to watch the movie without seeing the larger context, and to separate the artist from the man and the decades of troubling accusations, public missteps, and personal suffering. At the time of Jackson’s death, his legacy appeared to be irreversibly tarnished. It seemed that he’d be remembered more as a punch line and less an artistic genius. Rumors even swirled around these shows, and most doubted they would ever happen. Rather than being a triumphant return, they’d just be another footnote in the troubling demise of Michael Jackson.
But a funny thing happened after Michael’s death: by and large, people chose to remember him fondly. They preferred to think back to the little boy with the huge voice in the Jackson 5, or the man who invented the moonwalk and nearly brought the house down at the Motown 25 celebration. His songs soared to the tops of the iTunes charts, as people gobbled up his music in remembrance. Given the choice of troubled and tortured human or artistic genius and icon, most chose the latter. The great irony is that in death, Jackson was able to reclaim his life and redefine his legacy.
I don’t think things are ever that simple. Perhaps the correct (and more difficult) choice would be tortured genius. Most accounts of Jackson paint him as a reserved, almost painfully shy man who was quite eccentric and unable to live a normal life. But This Is It makes it clear that at the age of 50 he was still peerless artistically. These things may never be reconciled. And maybe they don’t need to be.
The movie closes with a performance of “Man in the Mirror”, Jackson’s song about self-reflection and desire for personal growth. No song better represents the disconnect between Jackson’s music and his life, between the desire to be a someone and the ability to do so. As the refrain comes to a close and the last notes of the song are ringing out, the camera closes in and freezes on Jackson at the front of the stage, his arms outstretched in a Jesus-on-the-cross pose. I can’t think of a more fittingly conflicted ending to his movie or to his life. That image at once embodies all of his inherent pain and glory, his desire to be both the King of Pop and a normal person, and his inability to succeed at either, the immense success stunting his personal life, the personal trials blemishing his career. Only in death, may he find peace.
The King is dead; long live the King.
Rating: 9.5 / 10.0