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November 28, 2014

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This Is It documents Jackson at his best, and a show that never was

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Kenny Ortega and Michael Jackson with the selected dancers.

Sometimes you don’t know whether to applaud, slap your forehead or kick the screen.

“This Is It” is the type of movie you would want to watch dozens of times but for the tragic, unseen ending. For me, once is enough. It’s exhilarating. It’s fascinating. But it’s also terrifically sad. The new documentary/concert film, which was screened Tuesday night at Brenden Theatres in the Palms, is effective as both a documentary and a eulogy of Michael Jackson’s career. It would be one of the most inspiring pieces of film ever produced if not viewed from the inevitable prism of Jackson’s death on June 25 at age 50, just as the shows were about to go live.

As it is, the movie is still a dynamite account of the rehearsals for Jackson’s 50 shows scheduled for London's 02 Arena. Director Kenny Ortega assembled the best of the best, some of the finest dancers, singers and musicians in the world, for this production. The staging is superb -- the updated 3-D version of “Thriller” alone would have made great theater. Some individuals, such as the dazzling guitarist Orianthi Panagaris, will likely vault to stardom because of this film (she’s already dropped her surname, Madonna-like).

It’s also a vivid reminder of how truly gifted Jackson was. Even amid some fantastic (and far younger) dancers, Michael Jackson is the man, no question. There is a chilling scene where he tears through “Billie Jean” in front of about a dozen backing dancers watching from the front of the stage, their mouths agape. At the end, they roar their approval, which is at once excited and reverential. Those who remember Jackson dressed in his jammies and nearly unable to walk into his own court appearance a few years ago will be stunned to see how fired up Jackson was during these rehearsals. He was so clearly motivated for this comeback, and the most fascinating moments are when Jackson works with the band, dancers and backup singers on particular segment of the show. He discusses “funking up” a tempo with the band and is told by a musician, “We’re getting there.” Dropping his child-sweet voice, Jackson snaps, “Well, get there.” Another moment: As keyboardist Michael Bearden struggles to perfect a song segment, Jackson says, “I want it played like I wrote it. Play it like that,” and repeatedly sings the notes to the musician with painstaking diligence. “You just bathe in the light,” Jackson explains. Bearden finally gets it, saying, “You want more booty?” Right!

Watching this sort of superstar attention to detail, I recalled that during Jackson’s heyday, Michael Jordan was the great basketball player of the era. Every kid who played basketball wanted to run and dunk like Michael Jordan. But top-level basketball coaches, those who truly studied the game, always spoke of the fundamentals in Jordan’s makeup -- how he played textbook defense, used his off-hand when shooting layups from the left side of the hoop, developed perfect form in his jump shot, rarely made careless passes -- those types of techniques. Famous for his cutting-edge dance moves, Jackson approached his craft with the same dogged devotion to minutia. He really understood the fundamentals of entertaining, having been fairly forced into the culture as a child. There are many moments when Jackson goes “by feel,” asking for a pause, or the swiftest glance, because he knows it will work from the stage. Ortega, and others, simply defer to his genius.

In the end, you realize –- and this is a very easy conclusion, given that the star of the show wound up dead during this process -- that Jackson was pushed at too hard a pace for his physical being to sustain. At some point, it seems destined that he would crater physically, whether it was before the shows in London began or at some point in the grueling 50-show run. He is so lightweight and rail-thin in these scenes, and you cannot help but wonder what might have been had he had a chance to become strong and healthy for these shows. That’s what makes the experience so very frustrating.

“This Is It” proves that Michael Jackson had a lot of entertainment left in him, and with the movie, he leaves behind a microcosm of his long career: a tragedy as sad and maddening as it was thrilling.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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