This Is It

Michael Jackson's This Is It on Blu-ray Disc 

by Jim Bray

Boy, this would have been one heckuva series of concerts!

Michael Jackson's "This Is It" is an interesting film, a documentation of the last hurrah of "the King of Pop" (I wonder how many share of Coca-Cola he owned), shot during the rehearsals for the 50 date London concert series he had planned for 2009. Obviously, he didn't make it and this Blu-ray now becomes his farewell performance to the millions of fans for whom he was so important.

I was never really hooked on Jackson's music, though I liked some of this stuff, but I always applauded his pursuit of excellence via hiring the best musicians, producers and technicians and his use of the best production values available.

As a swan song, This is It is excellent. It's kind of a concert film, but with enough behind the scenes stuff thrown in to make for an interesting "fly on the wall" view of the rehearsals. And what a set of concerts it would have been! Jackson and his band are backed up by state-of-the-art digital effects as backdrops to some of his numbers, including a 3D version of "Thriller" that would have probably looked really neat while, I imagine, being a logistical nightmare to mount live; I guess the ticket prices would have built the cost of thousands of 3D glasses into it. Add to the production values flames and fireworks and even a bulldozer (in a regrettably naive plea during "Earth Song" for us all to work together to save Mother Earth; it appears Jackson died before the man-caused global warming cult was exposed as a fraud), and you have the makings of real tour de force show.

The music ain't bad, either. Most of Jackson's big hits are presented here, though I don't remember hearing "Ben" (my all-time favorite Jackson song that's about a rat) nor "Fat', er, "Bad". But

Say what you will about Jackson as a person, and he does appear to have been a seriously disturbed toon, he touched millions (oops, maybe I should rephrase that!) with his music and was working very hard to reproduce his sound faithfully on the stage. The band is excellent and the Blu-ray's dts-HD Master Audio soundtrack rocks indeed.

I happened to watch the movie twice in one day, once on a 106 inch front projection screen with 500 watts of raw audio power, and later on a 50 inch plasma using TV speakers. Nothing against plasma, but I recommend highly the biggest screen and best audio system you can find; This Is It is worth it.

And play it loud, letting the experience wash over you the way it would have if this were in fact the Blu-ray release of the actual, finished concert.

THAT would have made a heckuva disc, too, a record of the polished performances with, presumably, all the bugs worked out. As it is, we now get to experience the work in progress, warts and all, and that's still pretty good.

I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to This Is It, figuring it was probably just an over-hyped mishmash designed to cash in on Jackson's demise. It may have been, but the end result is professional, entertaining, compelling and highly enjoyable even if, like me, you're only a passing Jackson fan (and don't take that as meaning I was a fan of his passing!). While watching the movie unfold, I found myself pausing it at one point so I could phone my wife and tell her just how much it was blowing me away - it was that enjoyable and eye-opening.

You get a bit of insight into Jackson and his methodology as well. He comes off as a perfectionist, not surprisingly, but I was surprised at how inarticulate he appeared when it came to expressing his wishes or concerns. At one point, he complains about the earpiece monitors he's wearing, mumbling about his inner ear and stuff, and the voice offscreen (which I assume was director Kenny Ortega) has to basically throw out ideas for what can be changed to make him satisfied until nearly by osmosis it comes out that the feed to his earpieces merely needs to be turned down. There are other instances where he's coaching musicians, coaxing something out of their performance, but the musicians nearly have to be psychic to get what he's mumbling about.

And while his singing is good, he says more than once that he's saving his voice. Maybe that's true, maybe - knowing now what we know - he was giving all he could and trying to hide that. We'll never know and I, for one, would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. This also extends to his dancing, which also seems not as fantastic as his moves from his heyday. That's understandable - the guy was 50 years old, after all - and he was still far better than I could even contemplate being, but this is not the same, lanky Jackson we saw rehearsing in the Making of Thriller video. Was he holding back, or in such dire physical straits that he couldn't reach his earlier heights? Who knows. And in the end, it probably doesn't matter, 'cause between him and his back up gang, the performances are very good.

Fortunately, the film never deteriorates into post-Jackson angst. Instead, we get clips of dancers who came to audition for Jackson and who express their thrill at being there, sometimes to the point of being over the top. But it's a celebration of what's ahead, rather than what might have been or what was.

The video quality varies from pretty good non-HD to very good HD and the aspect ratios and amount of screen real estate occupied jump around for the duration - kind of like the IMAX and non-IMAX sections changed on the Blu-ray of The Dark Knight. It works fine, though of course the best scenes are the ones that fill the 16x9 screen fully and, in places, nearly leap right off it an into your lap.

The dts HD audio quality is also top notch. It's front centered, which is fine since that's where the sound was coming from anyway, with enough surround use via ambience etc. to help make you feel as if you're really there. As mentioned above, this is a film that deserves to be played loudly.

If the concert footage isn't enough for you, take heart in the extras Sony has stuck onto the disc. There are two "making of" documentaries that look at the entire process of planning and mounting the huge concert series. It's worth watching, despite being mostly scenes from the film you just watched augmented by a bunch of talking head interviews.

"The Gloved One" is a short look at the costumes Jackson would have worn (which is merely hinted at in the movie), with decent looks at them. "Memories of Michael" is another short and is, not surprisingly, a bunch of people talking about their experiences with "The Gloved One". This is where the schmaltz that they wisely kept out of the movie is allowed to come in. "Auditions: Searching for the World's Best Dancers" is pretty self-explanatory.

Blu-ray exclusive include Movie IQ, a rather dumb feature Sony has been using increasingly that gives you "real time, in-movie information about the cast, crew, music and production via BD-Live." It does do that, but who cares?

Better are a "Smooth Criminal" vignette that's actually the entire short film you get to see a little of in the film and the Thriller vignette that would have been such a neat 3D feature in the real concert. And "Making Smooth Criminal" is a short documentary about how they updated the song by sticking MJ into some old gangster movies.

I can only imagine how much real Michael Jackson fans will enjoy This Is It but, as in my own case, you don't have to be even close to being a diehard Jackson fan to be blown away by this concert as it stands.

It's a shame he didn't live long enough for the series to come to pass, undoubtedly spawning an even better Blu-ray version of the show than this fine one is.

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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