"Michael Jackson's This Is It" looks beyond the reconstructed face and spindly body of the late King of Pop and basks in his meteoric light.
Culled from more than 100 hours of footage documenting Jackson's preparations for what was to be his farewell concert stand, the film is a privileged peek at the creative process of pop music's Peter Pan.
The show Jackson was putting together was a compendium - and cinematic reimagining - of his greatest hits, from "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" to "Man in the Mirror." The film, directed by Kenny Ortega ("High School Musical"), is an unfinished work, a lyrical and intimate tribute to an unfinished life.
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Watching this footage is comparable to being in the kitchen, savoring the smells and sampling tidbits, as a banquet is being prepared, but not getting to see it - or taste it - as it is served.
The digital videos taken at rehearsals are rough, not perfectly lit or focused. And Jackson, who played the scarecrow in "The Wiz," looks positively scarecrowlike. (When not obscured by fedora, sunglasses and tendrils, Jackson's face, reconstructed and Kabuki-pale, has the shock of Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker.)
But once he starts dancing with hoofers young enough to be his children, Jackson, who died at age 50, radiates pure energy. It's always a pleasure to watch him move. Just as pleasurable is to see him beam that vitality to dancers and musicians, and see them beam it back.
Jackson comes across as a more robust dancer than singer. In the film, recorded over 10 weeks before his death on June 25, Jackson is not always in voice. He says he's conserving his throat, but he does let it rip for "Human Nature." His appreciation of his musicians, and his subtle direction to hold a beat here for suspense or syncopate there for effect, illustrate his gifts as a musical dramatist.
Jackson didn't make many movies, but his music videos were mini-films with maximum emotional impact. He and Ortega had cinematic concepts for the concert production of "This Is It" - including a re-do of "Thriller" that would take it from a John Landis vampire frolic to a Tim Burton goth prom.
Influenced by "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," Jackson and Ortega conceived "Smooth Criminal" as a movie in which Jackson sings to Rita Hayworth and dodges bullets shot by Humphrey Bogart.
For Jackson, as for Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, a song was a three-minute drama. Dance and film were not bells and whistles, but ways for him to underscore a song's subject matter.
Because Jackson seems most concentrated, most alive, when he is performing, it would probably be a mistake to call "This Is It" a backstage movie. Yet there are lovely backstage moments when Jackson serenades Ortega in Spanish or generously gives direction to a guitarist, telling her to amp it up: "This is your moment to shine."
"This Is It" is Jackson's moment to shine. For two hours, he's alive and kicking it.
RATED: PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images
RUNNING TIME: two hours, 1 minute