LOS ANGELES, Oct. 28, 2009 -- 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.
Michael Jackson's "This Is It" plays like a fascinating special features companion DVD for a movie that doesn't exist. Like every Michael Jackson performance, it leaves its audiences wanting more, just not in a way he would ever have intended.
But that didn't matter to the dozens of celebrities, such as Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Paula Abdul and Paris Hilton who braved the blustery winds, the screaming fans and more than 100 media crews at the Nokia Theater, who all wanted to be the first to see video of the King of Pop in the months before he passed away.
"I'm sitting in the nokia theater in awe of the "this is it" movie! So many emotions are coming up For me I can't believe He's Gone BRILLIANT," Abdul tweeted.
Before the show, Jackson brothers Marlon, Randy, Jermaine and Jackie worked the carpet as a unit, remembering Michael Jackson together.
"I miss him with all my heart," said Jermaine Jackson, who was decked in a regal, bright-blue jacket and shades. "But I know his music will live on forever."
"American Idol's" Adam Lambert and David Cook, JC Chasez, "High School Musical" cast members, Mickey Rooney, Motown's Barry Gordy and a number of other celebrities also made appearances at the premiere.
"Michael Jackson was more than a singer," retired boxer Sugar Ray Leonard said. "He was more than an entertainer. Michael Jackson was special. I'm here paying tribute."
Actor Marlon Wayans, who brought his son, said, "To me and my family, Michael Jackson -- actually his entire family -- for us they were the inspiration that made the Wayans the Wayans. We loved them."
As much as the evening was about big names, it was also about giving some lesser-known talents a chance to celebrate their boss.
"This Is It" backup dancer Mischa Gabriel re-enacted Michael's trademark moves -- the moon walk and crotch grab -- as he made his way down the red carpet. "He was truly my idol," Gabriel said. "And the world will really be in pure shock and amazement when they see firsthand how great this man really was."
'This Is It' Premieres in 34 Countries
Ken Stacey, a background singer in the film, said, "It was an extraordinary life-changing experience to be on the stage with one of the finest, most extraordinary singers we've ever seen in pop music."
Contrary to rumors, Stacey said, Michael Jackson was in good health. "I can tell you right now, being there for 2½ months, six days a week, 12 hours a day, this was a man who was strong and getting stronger all the time."
Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, who produced Jackson's last album, said it was a shame to lose such a creative genius so soon.
"He was just getting started," he said. "He really looked at this as a long path for a new beginning. But look at this turnout for him. We're here to celebrate him."
The fans, decked out in silver sequined gloves and singing Jackson songs, agreed.
"We never got backstage passes before," said superfan Pat Taylor, who was flanked by eight of her family members. "So that makes being here the greatest thing in the world."
"This is it," she said as a handful of others chanted "We love Michael" behind her.
The film premiered in 34 countries, 16 of them taking place simultaneously.