Thousands of fans and dozens of sequin-studded stars attended the Los Angeles premiere of Michael Jackson's movie "This Is It" Tuesday night.
Given that Michael Jackson was midway through run throughs for his forthcoming live shows at the time of his death, it'd be wrong to go to "This Is It" expecting to see a concert film. It's really a rehearsal film, skilfully and imaginatively put together by director Kenny Ortega from more than 80 hours of onstage performance and behind-the-scenes footage all shot before Jackson's death. And not unlike one of his songs, it proves to be both spirited and sad.
It's spirited because you do get to see Michael Jackson at work performing plenty of his hits, even as he's rightly holding back with the reserve of a 50-year-old showbiz professional who knows the difference between a rehearsal and the real thing. (Michael Jackson singing and dancing at 80 percent is nothing to sneeze at.)
You also get to see the self-styled King of Pop in creative mode: working out new dance routines on the fly, cajoling his musical collaborators to play a song his way, struggling to adjust to his oppressive earpieces during "I Want You Back," testing out a cherry-picker for "Beat It" or urging on the remarkable female guitarist Orianthi Panagaris as she shreds her way through "Black or White." He looks engaged and committed to this production's success throughout. He even laughs a few times, behind sunglassses that only occasionally come off.
And every so often, even with only a couple of cameras covering him, dressed without his usual onstage pizzazz, performing only for a clutch of backup dancers and production personnel, he hits some ridiculously soaring note in "Human Nature" or blasts his body through a few seconds of the "Billie Jean" choreography, and you are reminded once again that, for all the dysfunction that seemed to surround him, he really was the greatest entertainer of the pop generation. "This Is It" ratifies that greatness with puttin'-it-together realism.
It still feels sad. Because like Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois, Michael Jackson didn't want realism, he wanted magic. No one sought more assiduously to astonish and amaze his audiences -- with song, with dance, or with stagecraft -- and like any magician, he never seemed too eager to reveal how a trick had been done.
Thoughout the rehearsals in the movie, Jackson imagines how live audiences will be lured in or dazzled by some bit of unexpected wonder yet to come: an onstage bulldozer in "Earth Song," a 3-D effect in "Thriller" or the sight of Michael himself doing what he calls "sizzling" -- stopping the music just to wait for the audience's love to wash over him.
Watching the movie, even knowing that this film documents what was to be an unfinished work in progress, you still find yourself hoping that somehow, the next song will feature Michael singing and dancing full-out, the way he did so many times on TV, in music videos, or onstage -- and soaking up the affection of his fans. He just didn't live long enough for this production to reach the finish line, or to hear that packed house cheering.