Monday, November 16, 2009

This Is It

I thought This Is It was fascinating, and I'm not even a big Michael Jackson fan. I acknowledge that he had a large number of huge hits, and I've owned my share of Michael Jackson albums (my share was two: Thriller and Bad) but I've never really been personally invested in the guy.

But it turns out I find it more interesting to watch him dance at half-speed than when he's going all-out. This Is It is full of moments where he's sort of sketching his dance out, gesturing in the direction of the performance, and it's really cool. Part of it is that I know all his moves, so I can tell what the finished performance would look like, but it's also just that it's neat to watch him work out what the performance will be.

Early on, someone (Kenny Ortega, I think) says that the backup dancers are supposed to be "extensions of Michael", and I can really see what he meant. While Michael's moving around the stage showing what he could be doing, the dancers are hitting everything full-speed at all times. So when Michael decides to go all-out for a bit, everything is in sync and looks great. And when he pulls back, you realize that there really is a hole at the center of the stage waiting for Michael to fill it. This wasn't going to be one of those big shows where the "star" just wanders around between professional dancers. The movie makes it clear that every part of the show was designed to flow from Michael's performance. He's the focal point and everything else is designed to either amplify his movements or reflect focus back on him.

It's also made clear just how in-charge Michael was. There are times when he tells everyone that such-and-such a cue has to be given by him. No one else's judgment matters in the moment; just wait for MJ to point to you, then start up. He's very polite about these things (way more polite than, say, Madonna in Truth or Dare) but he's also very clearly a perfectionist who knows exactly what he wants. And since he's always right about these things, people shut up and do what he says.

The movie made me think about the history of stadium shows. The Michael Jackson "This Is It" tour would have been lavish, produced, and choreographed to within an inch of its life (the backup dancers never miss a step, as far as I could tell). But just a few decades ago, the Beatles hit Shea Stadium with a show that just consisted of the four of them standing on a tiny stage playing their songs. At some point, someone realized that if you're going to play to tens of thousands of people, you might want to add more than just a couple of go-go dancers.

I also liked seeing how excited everyone was to be working on this show. There are moments where Michael's working out some steps with the other musicians, and the dancers are down on the floor in front of the stage, giddy with delight that they're getting a private Michael Jackson concert. When he sings for real, some of them are actually jumping up and down, they're so happy. Then he complains that people shouldn't let him get carried away, because he was trying to save his voice for the performance.

But that's what made me enjoy this movie so much; knowing that he was holding back made the whole thing much more real for me. I already knew what it looked like when Michael Jackson is on stage before 50,000 people and he's doing his polished dance routine. Now I know what he looked like when he was just messing around in the middle of a song, too.

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