erik lundegaard

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This is It (2009)

WARNING: INCOMPLETE SPOILERS

“This Is It” was the title of Michael Jackson’s fourth and final world concert tour and became the title of a documentary featuring rehearsal footage from that fourth and final concert tour, but the folks at Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle didn’t even bother with it. On the tickets, on the internal marquees, they stuck to the essential. They called it “Michael.”

It starts out reminiscent of “A Chorus Line,” with back-up dancers telling us their brief histories and what Michael means to them. They often get teary; they can’t believe their good luck. “I’m from Australia,” one dancer says, and that’s enough to break him down. Another begins, “Life’s hard, right?,” then he talks about how he’s looking for something to shake him up and—cue title—“This is it.” We even get the classic “Chorus Line” shot of a stage full of dancers being whittled down to a handful. Then the announcement: “And the Michael Jackson principal dancers are...” Silence. If the point of “A Chorus Line” was to draw out all the nameless people in the chorus line, the point here is to keep them nameless. Only one name matters.

Michael, 50, more painfully thin that ever, with a face more wrecked than ever, doesn’t always sing or dance his heart out here. He can still do it—we see and hear him do it—but he’s obviously pacing himself. “I’m trying to warm up my voice,” he says at one point, apologetically. He’s the anti-Elvis: way too thin rather than way too fat; too much the perfectionist rather than the doped-up Vegas performer stumbling over his lyrics. We watch him coach his musicians and dancers. “You gotta let it simmer,” he says of the music for “The Way You Make Me Feel.” When there’s not enough funk in one song, Michael has this back-and-forth with the keyboardist:

Michael: It’s not there.
Keyboardist: It’s getting there.
Michael: Well, get there.

He says it kindly enough, in his usual falsetto, but there’s a bit of steel in his voice, too, that’s surprising and welcome. He wants it how he wants it.

All of this footage was meant for Michael’s private library, which raises two questions: 1) Why does someone need hundreds of hours of rehearsal footage for their own private viewing?, and 2) What would he think of his private footage becoming this very public documentary? Wasn’t Michael too much of a perfectionist to let the process of perfecting the product become the product? AEG Live and Sony sure didn’t let this one simmer, did they? There was money to be made and they’re making it—over $100 million worldwide opening weekend. But even as you’re feeling badly that Michael no longer has a say in how his image is used, you watch, on the screen, the making of a short film that would’ve accompanied the “Smooth Criminal” number, in which Michael, all gangstered-up 1940s style, interacts with Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. The dead, particularly the famous dead, never have a say.

The outpouring of affection when Michael died on June 25, 2009, was immediate and, to me, a little sickening. We’re such necrophiliacs. We appreciate nothing until it’s gone, even though things are always going, and so there’s always the opportunity to pause and appreciate the things that are still here—while we’re still here. Only the wisest do this and I’m hardly among the wisest, but I do have an aversion to the pile-on. Part of why I never wrote about Michael until now.

He was always part of my landscape. Me and my brother, Chris, watched him and his brothers, Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, and Marlon, every Saturday morning on their cartoon show in the early 1970s. We watched the Jacksons pitch Alpha Bits cereal during the commercials. I even bought a box of Alpha Bits because there was a Jackson 5 single on the back. Unschooled in patience, I poured all the cereal into a big bowl, cut the record out and tried to play it on our small, kiddie turntable. Since it was made of thin cardboard, with only a veneer of vinyl, it played warped: slow and deep. The cereal got stale. An early lesson in waste.

I doubt we saw the famous “Ed Sullivan” performance, but we certainly saw the brothers on “The Flip Wilson Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” and performing lame skits on “The Rich Little Show.” I remember those. I remember the thrill of watching Michael dance, so slippery it was like liquid, and trying to move like him, and imagining I was coming close. He brought the funk to a south Minneapolis basement. In a way I wanted to be like him, but in another way, a sadder way, he wanted to be like me. An argument can be made that Michael was the most representative American figure in the second half of the 20th century. In a country finally dealing with racism, and with its history of white performers stealing from black performers, a black singer finally emerged as the most popular singer in the world. Then he slowly turned white. If you made this shit up no one would believe it.

I missed “Off the Wall” when it first came around, but like everyone I was there for “Billie Jean.” And, yes, I watched “Motown 25” when it first aired. I was 20 and still thrilled at his slippery, seemingly effortless movements. “Beat It” and “Thriller,” and their accompanying videos, broke him wider, and got him on the cover of Time magazine (a big deal back then, kids), but they didn’t do much for me. I didn’t care for the whole Broadway-style dance number; I wanted Michael dancing alone. By himself he was electric. Others, I felt, hemmed him in.

Curious: Did he ever dance the way Fred Astaire danced, with a partner, where the point was give-and-take, push-and-pull, male and female? Instead he went solo or—with his brothers or back-up dancers—fronted multiple echoes of his own movements.

People think it’s sad that he left us at 50 but I think it’s sad he left us at 30. He seemed bizarre in the mid-’80s—one white glove and the epaulets and the huge sunglasses—but no more bizarre, sartorially, than Prince or Bowie or Elton John. But around “Bad” you began to wonder what he was doing to his face. Fans can talk all they want about the vitiligo and the lupus but they can’t argue past the plastic surgery: the disappearing nose and lips; the widening and painted eyes; the long, straight, scraggly hair. By the time of “Black and White,” I winced looking at him. By the mid-’90s I had to turn away. And not just because of the child molestation charges.

He combated the rumors via his video persona. Too weak? He played gang- or gangster-tough in “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal.” Too asexual? He kept grabbing his crotch near a pretty girl in “The Way You Make Me Feel.” It all felt hollow. He kept trying to be what he wasn’t—“Bad” and “Dangerous”—while his anger felt real but misdirected. He shouted at the world to no or amused effect. Why was he angry? What did he want? World peace? Get in line. The pretty baby with the high heels on? Kiss her already! You’re Michael Jackson! His marriages in the ’90s seemed shams. As a child he sang of a “baby” and a “darling” (“Oh, baby, give me one more chance”/”Oh, darling, I was blind to let you go”), but as an adult did he ever have a baby or a darling? One hopes. In the doc, he talks a lot about love but without much heat or light. It’s a word people use.

“This Is It” is supposed to be a celebration but to me it’s just sad sad sad. How did so much talent go so horribly awry? It’s also inevitably incomplete. In these types of docs, rehearsals lead to final shows, and the absence of a final show here is deafening.

Michael spoke of the tour as his final curtain call so one assumes he meant the double meaning of the title. We use “This is it” to revel in the now—what we’re living through is what we’ve waited for: this is it—and to anticipate departure. No more. That’s all. This is it.

The documentary makes lies of both meanings. The doc doesn’t revel in the now but in a past in which Michael is still alive; and as long as anything connected with Michael makes money, we know this won’t be it. They’ll keep it coming.

—November 1, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard