By Chaz Lipp
This article first published as Blu-ray Review: Michael Jackson’s This Is It on Blogcritics.
During its theatrical run, Michael Jackson’s This Is It served as a sort of worldwide public memorial for the late superstar. Audiences were comprised of everyone from hardcore fans to those who hadn’t paid Jackson much attention in many years. Seeing the documentary on the big screen was an event. The experience was made all the more captivating by not knowing exactly what would be seen. Everyone knew Jackson was to perform 50 shows at London’s O2 arena. The question was whether or not he was truly fit to perform after such a long absence from the stage.
Revisiting This Is It on Blu-ray can’t help but be something of a minor letdown by comparison to the theatrical viewing. Knowing what to expect means seeing the film for exactly what it is: a skeletal outline of what probably would’ve been a fantastic show. The film is far from the usual slickly produced concert films commonly released by major stars. There are no screaming fans. The only spectators were people directly involved with the production. None of it was intended for public exhibition. This is fly-on-the-wall footage of Michael Jackson honing his stage chops.
There was some minor controversy swirling around the film during the weeks before its release. After Jackson’s death, it was quickly announced that private video footage of the rehearsals would be edited into a feature. Jackson’s own father was insisting that most of the footage featured body doubles rather than his son. That may very well have been true during some of the long preparation that stretched for months before the late rehearsals we glimpse in This Is It. Clearly what we see in the film is all Jackson. Yet the press reported the elder Jackson’s diss repeatedly.
Adding to the skepticism was a group of severely misguided “fans” who tried to organize a boycott based on their presumptions that the film wasn’t accurately representing Jackson’s skills. Their concern was that the film would present Jackson in a far more robust light than he actually was. On-set rumors of Jackson being disoriented, forgetting lyrics, and being too weak to dance had circulated for weeks. This particular group of fans believed This Is It would be dishonest to omit such material (if it in fact even existed).
All of that, combined with what some perceived as excessive coverage of the late artist’s life and death, left a certain number of potential viewers very cynical. What really counts, of course, is what we actually see in the finished film. Jackson is clearly in command of his talents as he sings, dances, and directs his band with authority. This footage, it bears repeating, is far from the finished product. By his own admission, Jackson was holding back in order to conserve his voice and physical strength for the actual shows. But when he cuts loose at the end of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” trading vocal licks with backing vocalist Judith Hill, his voice is as distinctive as ever.
The show would’ve been a dazzling, effects-laden spectacle. What’s even more impressive though is the level of musicianship assembled. Jackson could’ve gotten away, as so many artists do, with an over-reliance on prerecorded backing tracks and samples. But for the most part, it seems that the tight band was going to carry the weight of recreating his hits the old fashioned way. Australian guitarist Orianthi Panagaris makes an especially noteworthy contribution, with her solo on “Black Or White” being a highlight.
The Blu-ray disc is extraordinary on a technical level. It’s hard to believe this footage was intended for private use only, as it looks so good. Footage was culled from more than one source, and the standard definition segments do stick out like a sore thumb. It is, after all, a documentary so not every situation provided ideal lighting. Naturally there wasn’t an opportunity for reshoots. Fortunately, the lion’s share of the documentary consists of high definition footage which looks crystal clear. Colors are vividly reproduced and the blacks are uniformly solid. In the high definition footage, I detected no artifacts at all. The level of visual detail is breathtaking at times. The filmed sequences for “Smooth Criminal” and “Thriller” are equally impressive.
The DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio soundtrack is outstanding. Again, the very nature of documentaries means that conversations cannot be looped in post-production. Some scenes featuring Jackson talking with various production members are subtitled because the audio isn’t always optimal. This in no way reflects poorly upon the Blu-ray presentation. The music is what really needs to be heard in surround sound, and the disc lives up to expectations. The band sounds full and powerful. The subwoofer gets a workout as it cranks out throbbing bass. The rear speakers are well utilized for crowd noise (what little there is) and various effects. Jackson’s vocals are mostly clear and centered, though on most numbers he was holding back rather than singing at full strength. This results in some reserved, almost muffled, vocals – but again, that’s not a fault of the mix. The backing vocalists and various instruments are never distorted. They burst forth vigorously, mainly from the right and left front channels.
A strong roster of supplements accompanies the main film. Several substantial featurettes provide a deeper look at the planning of the concert series. “Staging the Return: The Adventure Begins” is the highlight, running approximately a half hour. This mix of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews truly gives a sense of the scope of the planned concert series. “Staging the Return: Beyond the Show” focuses on the decision by Kenny Ortega to turn the rehearsal footage into a film. Additional featurettes focus on the show’s dancers, the costume designer, and further interviews with the musicians. And even though we see most of them in the actual film, the filmed vignettes for “Smooth Criminal” and “Thriller” are included in their entirety. There is even a featurette detailing the making of the former.
If you didn’t catch Michael Jackson’s This Is It during its limited theatrical run, you missed out on a unique movie-going experience. Thankfully the Blu-ray does an exemplary job of recreating that experience from a technical standpoint, providing a flawless (save for inherent source limitations) audio/visual presentation. Repeat viewings may be more likely for the truly obsessive fans. There is an undeniable sadness that hangs over the film, knowing that this is a great artist’s final work-in-progress. That makes it tougher to watch over and and over. Casual fans may not feel the need to own a copy, but are highly urged to see it at least once.