At what point do you draw a line when it comes to a performer's behaviour? After seeing Rihanna's battered face, do you still look at Chris Brown in the same way? Do his lyrics still woo the ladies when they know that there's violence toward women behind that voice? Sure, Christian Bale and Russell Crowe seem to get away with their childish outbursts without it affecting the number of ticket sales for their movies, but people like Mel Gibson seem to suffer much worse. Whether or not it was out of choice, he spent the best part of a decade away from the Big Screen and, even now, with the solid Edge of Darkness proving to be a decent return to his hard-hitting form, there is still some stigma attached to his name.
Surely one of the strangest examples (at least in the cinematic realm) is Roman Polanski, the legendary Director behind the 70s classic Chinatown (which, ironically, included themes of child abuse) who admitted to having sex with a minor. It's called unlawful intercourse with a minor. Or statutory rape. Others look on it as child abuse or even paedophilia. But whatever you want to label it as, morally, most people could see that there was clearly something wrong with a 44 year old man sleeping with a 13 year old girl. Polanski evaded punishment for over forty years - up until fairly recently - and yet it did not stop him winning the 2003 Oscar for The Pianist. Nor did it stop him suing a Vanity Fair for publishing inappropriate comments about his behaviour (in another case), a talking-point of a case where basically it was shown that a man in France, avoiding deportation for crime committed in America, could sue a magazine published in America, in a British court. Polanski won the case too, by video link. Is there something wrong with this picture?
Michael Jackson is a whole bin bag of controversy. On paper, he was an indisputable musical genius - the ultimate King of Pop - a global phenomenon, ever since his breakthrough performances as a member of the Jackson 5. His albums all had a record-breaking quantity of number 1 hits attached to them, he grew an amazing worldwide following and he became arguably the most successful entertainer on the planet - and probably one of the richest.
Of course he did a few strange things, all of which gave the impression that he just wanted to remain an eternal kid in his ageing body. He built his own little fantasy world: a multi-million dollar 'Neverland' Ranch - to live in (like the perpetually youthful Peter Pan), and then ferried boat-loads of kids over to play on his Ferris-wheel, but most of his fans just put it down to the kind of eccentricity that most rich people get away with. You know that old saying about poor people being labelled as insane, where rich people just get called eccentric? Good old MJ was the epitome of that particular adage.
And things only got weirder in the wonderful world of 'Wacko Jacko', after child sex abuse allegations in 1993 (the charges from which were dropped after an out-of-court settlement), a random spur-of-the-moment marriage (or two) - first to the daughter of Elvis Presley for 2 years, then to his dermatologist for another couple of years - and finally a further 7 counts of child molestation only a few years ago, which went to full trial, at which point Jackson was acquitted. Apparently the 'sleepovers', that he openly admitted to having with 13 year old children - one boy in particular, were perfectly innocent. Honestly, somebody should have perhaps considered telling him that there is something wrong with a grown man spending the night in the same bed as a 13 year old boy, whatever the rationalisation.
Rumours about Vitilago (a terrible cosmetic condition that results in bleached blotching of the skin, and requires regular 'powdering' to lighten the entire face so the patches will not show), multiple surgical operations to his nose, cheeks and even chin, as well as a crazy fashion 'sense' made him something of a 'freak' celebrity icon, and dangling one of his newborn children from a 4th floor balcony in front of the press certainly did not help his public image. Financial problems ensued (despite having so many record-breaking titles and having made millions - if not billions - his lifestyle was so extravagant and peculiar that it ate all the cash), the Ranch was mortgaged and vacated, Jackson fled to the Persian Gulf and became something of a recluse for the best part of a decade and then - out of nowhere - agreed to an unprecedented 50-date sell-out tour, his curtain call, entitled This Is It.
Well, what a whirlwind life. However you want to look at Jackson, whatever your take on his personal life and 'strange' behaviour, I return to the fact that he was an indisputable musical genius, an amazing performer who continued to dazzle and surprise his followers (in more ways than one) even beyond his own death. And 'This Is It' is certainly the last recent new performance footage that we are going to get from this entertainer.
This Is It was intended to be a breakthrough concert, a concert to set new standards for live performances, utilising the latest CGI, green-screen and 3D effects to bring all of the King of Pop's greatest songs to the stage for one last time. Bigger and better than ever done before, all we have now is a mish-mash collection of semi-complete dance rehearsals and video effects for this tour, collected together to form - as good as you are ever going to get - something of a concert 'experience'. This is not a documentary, this is it.
Appearing on stage courtesy of a giant robot, which would snap open and have him climb out, it is clear from the outset that Jackson wanted his final tour to be a memorable one. We only get to see the incomplete CG mapping for this stage stunt, but you can imagine just how awesome it would have been. When the man himself appears, it's not quite the grand opening that you would have had in the real concert, instead he's just dressed 'casually' (i.e. these are only rehearsals so none of the final outfits were used, although his natural fashion 'style' was wild enough for his casual outfits to look suitably shiny and gaudy) and he's not really singing the complete songs, instead chiming in and out as the backing music plays behind him. Initially you wonder whether he's just a halfway decent Jackson impersonator who is singing along to some classic karaoke tracks, but it soon becomes apparent that this really is the legend himself, him dance moves getting more elaborate as he warms up, and so too his singing.
We follow the concert's would-be line-up, with Jackson singing all the classics (maybe not every single word, but at least it's still him there putting in an effort) like Billie Jean, The Way You Make Me Feel, Beat It, Thriller, Smooth Criminal and so forth. He's still an amazing singer, and his robot dance moves and slippery moonwalker feet are as slick as ever, but you can see the flaws as clearly as you can see the genius. This is the guy who can walk up to the percussion and backing DJ and tell him exactly what part of the backing music he wants levelled up, imitating the beat perfectly with his mouth. I suspect few people on the planet can do this so pitch-perfectly. Conversely, he's still clearly got some issues to deal with (watching This Is It can often make you forget them) and moments like when he takes his earphones out only highlight this. Here, despite the production director telling him to put them back in, his complaints about the earphones feeling like "someone is pushing a fist into my ear" mean he sings out-of-synch and considerably worse without their assistance.
Aside from his singing, he also gets the chance to show us that he still has his dance moves down. Not only do we get to see the moves he had prepared to help choreograph the dance sequences for several of his hits, but we also get to see the amazing Smooth Criminal moves that were taken through to near-completion, and the work he did to assist behind the camera in preparing for Thriller's undead invasion. For a fifty-year old guy he seems pretty damn spry and slick in terms of dancing. I'm sure he is pacing himself but, even though these are just rehearsals, he still displays a hell of a lot of energy. On the downside, he looks like a cross between Skeletor from He-Man and one of those plastic skeletons that used to hang up in the corner of your Biology classroom, his size zero clothes barely hanging on his extremely fragile-looking frame, and his glittery, flashy outfits looking even more ludicrous with their shoulder-pads that are wider than his physical body could ever be. There's slim, athletic, there's even skinny, and then there's anorexic. This does not look like a healthy man. And yes, Elvis may have been more like a Burger King than the King of Rock & Roll towards the end of his career (/life) but surely Jackson's approach is just as bad for you.
Of course, just watching a bunch of rehearsals for concert songs would become pretty boring and repetitive, pretty quickly, even if it was about the late King of Pop, but cleverly the footage we get here is put together to give you an idea of the effects sequence (however incomplete they were) that would have surrounded the various song setpieces. So for Smooth Criminal we have this clever Sin City-stlye CG layering, whereby Jackson is put into a classic black and white Humphrey Bogart film, and gets to slide down bannisters, shoot a tommy-gun and do his thang (in his trademark white suit) before jumping out of a window and landing on the stage to perform the song. I'm sure the final version would have look astounding live, but they give you enough material here to put the pieces together and imagine the end result.
It is this manner of presenting the concert footage that really grabs you when watching the Blu-ray feature, giving you a sense of how much it would have grabbed audiences on stage. Thriller too has some tremendous effects sequences, not least a giant spider (seen here in both CG and robot form) which crawls up to the audience and then opens up to have Jackson climb out. Ok, so that one was a little creepy (that is one nasty, ugly spider) but the whole Thriller segment (which would have been shown in 3D) looked extremely promising in its initial stages. The only disappointing (or insipid) effects offering was the horrendous Earth Song video. I never liked the song, it was almost as trite as that sequence at the end of Seagal's On Deadly Ground where he preaches about environmental damage for ten minutes, and whilst both men clearly believed in their causes, there's a time and a place for it. Having a little girl (who is totally acting, and does not look in the least bit sincere) running around a CG rainforest that's about to be CG bulldozed before MJ steps in? Sorry, it's not even a catchy tune. Thankfully it's a small blip in an otherwise great bevy of hits.
Irrespective of the effects extravaganza that is on offer - insanely wild pyrotechnics exploding out on stage like the 4th of July and CG imagery blasted out on an almost IMAX-scale screen behind the performances - it's Jackson's own contribution that is the most amazing to behold. This man clearly still has the zest and spirit that he was also famed for, and the energy that he puts into songs like The Way You Make Me Feel and Wanna' Be Startin' Something really shows you that he still had that awesome power to entertain.
This Is It takes us through the best part of the concert, showing us the concepts behind the songs, the dances and the stunt and effects set-pieces that had been planned, putting all of the available footage together very cleverly, to give us the best possible idea of how Jackson's curtain call would have played out live on stage. And then it ends. No sad farewells, no epilogue or epitaph, just ending (perhaps like the concert would have), reminding us that all it ever was, was a taster of what could have, should have and would have been had the man lived to see this thing through. That fact alone will probably cut to the bone for many of his fans. To know that this much-loved musical genius still had the capacity to entertain on a global, record-breaking, world-shaking level, and that he was mere days away from doing so, is a massive tragedy.
Without passing any comment on the man himself, This Is It rises above the issues surrounding the music master himself, and that certainly works for the better, especially when trying to give a proper concert film. But I have to question sometimes whether, as much as this is exactly the kind of performance that made the man so loved and so lauded - such an acclaimed, globally recognised icon - this was also an example of exactly what fuelled his 'issues'. Are we not somewhat to blame as the fans who effectively made the monster? If he wasn't so unbelievably rich, surely he would not have gotten away with some of the things he got away with? I know that he's certainly not the only one out there - we've seen everybody from Howard Hughes to all those famous scientology 'sponsors' show exactly how having too much money can push celebrities into a position where no-one dares speak candidly to them.
I mean, if Jackson's whole entourage weren't so worried about the loss of a fat paycheque, perhaps someone would have stepped in and said, 'Hey, Michael, what's with the monkey?' or 'Sleepovers with 13 years old boys aren't really sensible when you're no longer a teenager yourself.' Many fans can (and always have) ignored the facts in favour of the performance - and with the entertainment genius shown here it is easy to see why - but should we? This Is It could have been, and would have been an amazing comeback, a tremendous bookend to a fantastic career, but whether or not it ever should have been is another question entirely.
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