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Posthumous Jackson Concert Film's A Thriller

Of the Oakland Press

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There is one place the late Michael Jackson has always made sense -- the stage.

When we see him perform we forget about the criminal charges, the Elephant Man's bones, the hyperbaric chamber and the other freakish sideshows that plowed under a stellar 40 years of hitmaking, both on his own and with his brothers. Jackson was the most contemporary pinnacle of a classic song-and-dance man, and seeing him perform consistently stunned and amazed, regardless of what was going on away from the stage.

That's the Jackson we've been mourning since his shocking death on June 25, at age 50, and that's the Jackson who stars in "Michael Jackson's This Is It," a feature film documentary from rehearsals for his planned 50-show stand at London's O2 arena that was to begin just 18 days after he died. It's both a tribute and a fascinating look behind the scenes at what was to be one of the largest rock concert productions of all time (budgeted at an estimated $20 million). And while it easy could have turned cloying and maudlin and psychophantic, "This Is It" is actually tasteful and dynamic, exciting and insightful to watch and leaving viewers with just a tinge of sadness of just how great Jackson's show, which he claimed would be his "final curtain call," could have been.

Culled from more than 100 hours of footage and put together by Kenny Ortega, Jackson's creative partner for the This Is It concerts, the film certainly sports plenty of hyperbolic plaudits for Jackson -- from Ortega himself, who generally treats his superstar colleague with kid gloves and fawning indulgence, and from the dancers and musicians who are part of the show. But the most convincing evidence is visual, as we watch Jackson and company go through the paces of putting the show together and learn that even at down-shifted preparation speed, he's still dynamite.

A case in point; the "Billie Jean" segment, in which the onetime Motown prodigy is clearly going through the paces, blocking out moves in his head, then suddenly bursts into a dizzying variation of his moonwalk -- "So we can get a feel of it," he says -- that prompts an outburst of applause from those watching him at Los Angeles' Staples Center and even from fans in the movie theaters. "It's church!" Ortega gushes. "The church of rock 'n' roll!"

There are moments like that throughout the film as the This Is It crew builds intimate renditions of "Human Nature," "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There" and massive production pieces for the likes of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "They Don't Care About Us," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Beat It," "Earth Song," "Smooth Criminal" and "Thriller." The film show also shows soundstage preparations for interactive films that accompany the latter two, including a 3-D graveyard sequence for "Thriller." Choreographers, costumers and pyrotechnicians get screen time as they ply their crafts, and several scenes capture Jackson and musical director Michael Bearden going over song arrangements.

"It's comin' there," Bearden says after Jackson asks for a funkier groove for "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." "Well, get it there," Jackson shoots back. At another juncture he urges the band to "let is simmer" in order to build some dramatic tension into "The Way You Make Me Feel," and Jackson giggles when Bearden suggests inserting "a little more booty" into the tune.

Jackson, who's in good voice and seemingly solid health, looks like he's having the time of his life throughout "This Is It," clearly at home whether he's going over details or testing out a cherry picker that extends from the stage. He's wholly engaged in and captivated by the exercise, and that energy extends from the screen and draws us into that world almost as effectively as a full-scale concert.

We'll never know exactly what This Is It could have been as a stage show, but "This Is It" reminds us why Jackson was such a thriller in the first place.

"Michael Jackson's This Is It" opens Wednesday (Oct. 28) at area movie theaters. Check listings for showtimes.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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