This Is It Revisited
Does Purpose Count For Anything?

I am not a fan of Michael Jackson’ music, and never have been.  Back in the day, of course, I listened to the Jackson Five on the radio—but his early solo singles like “Ben” were nothing more to me than curiosities; and aside from “We Are the World” (which did move me) and “Beat It,” I’m not sure I’ve even sat through his other, more famous music videos, much less seen him perform live.

I am also not a fan of Michael Jackson the man—mostly because I don’t tend to follow celebrities of any sort.  Probably the celebrity I’ve been most “excited” to stumble across was Sean Bean, with whom I once shared an elevator… and that, frankly, was because he seemed so “normal,” someone I could chat with idly about The Lord of the Rings while his cast mates were all off enjoying the L.A. premiere of The Return of the King.

But after seeing Michael Jackson’s This Is It—and having gladly plowed through the hours of special features on the DVD release—I can finally understand how others (such as PtP’s own Jeff Walls, who reviewed the theatrical release) could come to be a fan.  Jackson’s artistry was indeed unique and compelling, and the things that made him tick are moving and admirable.  The problems of celebrity, fame, and success undoubtedly exacerbated his well-documented escapist tendencies, and he was by no means a model of adult behavior, a deeply flawed human being for whom we need make no excuses.  But Kenny Ortega’s documentary assemblage of footage filmed during rehearsals for Jackson’s abortive “This Is It” concerts at least communicates something meaningful.

Michael Jackson rehearses in This Is ItOrtega’s film is dedicated to “the fans”—so it’s curious that Jeff, a confessed life-long fan of Jackson’s, had such faint praise: “The half-hearted attempt to make a typical talking heads documentary fails,” he wrote, “but fortunately there is plenty of vintage MJ to balance that out.”  Yet I think even I may have been left with the same impression had it not been for the content of the disc’s special features.

Jeff notes that the film opens with testimonials from the backup dancers about why they auditioned for the show.  The penultimate moment comes when a tearful, broken Misha Gabriel Hamilton explains: “Life is hard, right?  And I’ve been kind of searching for something to shake me up a little bit, and give me meaning, to believe in something.  And this is it.”

Later on, after Jackson says a few words to rally the troops at the end of a long day of rehearsal, Ortega steps in and offers the one-word observation that’s on the mind of every dancer, instrumentalist, choreographer, and audience member: “Church.”  Following Michael Jackson is a form of worship—simultaneously idolatrous and godly.  Much like an evangelist, Jackson’s Creative Associate and Choreography Travis Payne says that Jackson’s dancers are “the next generation to help convey his messages, and help continue his ideas; and they are soldiers, in a way.”

And what are those ideas and messages?  Baby dangling?  Crotch grabbing?  Myopic, blindered excess in service to tree-hugging environmentalism?  Alleged child molestation?

Well, not really.  Almost all of those faults, crimes, and misdemeanors come through in the hours of material on this DVD.  But what drives Jackson—as attested to both in testimonials and in Jackson’s words and behavior, and no matter how misguided his efforts may be—is love.

In the special feature titled “Memories of Michael,” Jackson’s musical director, Michael Bearden, recounts the following:

Michael, while we were working on some music one day, he said, he said to me, “Bearden, do you know what our name means?  It means, ‘the one who is most like God.’”  And I kind of sat up like this.  And he said, “No, no no.  We gotta be humble.  We gotta be humble.”  And I could see he was getting serious, so I said, “Well, I’m humble, M.J.  Why are you so serious about this?”  And he said, “Well, I don’t want God to take our gifts away; so if we’re not humble, you know, he’ll take our gifts away.”  So I said, “Well, I don’t think that’s gonna happen.  And I think your gifts are a little greater than mine.”  He said—and he really got mad at me—and he said, “No!  No, no.  Don’t say that.  Don’t say that.”  And he was really serious.  And I said, “Why are you saying that?”  And he said, “It’s because you’re here with me, and I’m here with you, and we have to use our gifts together to help others figure out what their gifts are.”  I just shut up.

At PtP, we believe that intent matters.  It’s not everything; and very often our human brokenness gets in the way of following through on what we intend to do.  But if any purpose can be at all commendable, Michael Jackson’s is one to celebrate.  May we all be as selfless.

Michael Jackson’s This Is It is rated PG for “some suggestive choreography and scary images.”  The crotch grabbing is what you’ve got to worry about.  That’s about it.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Michael Jackson’s This Is It.