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10/28/2009

Michael Jackson's posthumous curtain call

An odd, macabre posthumous curtain call-in-song, "Michael Jackson's This Is It" celebrates M.J. the meticulous, totally in-charge fallen musical genius.

"On Michael's signal, we begin," a voice (presumably that of director/producer Kenny Ortega) says reverently from the mostly dark Staples Center, a massive rehearsal hall for a concert series that would never be.

Except in this surprisingly powerful, dare I say enticing, raw cinematic form.

Some will say the appeal here is akin to slowing down to a traffic-halting crawl on the freeway to get a good look at a motorist whose life ended suddenly and without warning in a very public forum.  The King of Pop died in a similarly bizarre, only slightly more private manner on June 25.

This is not a review of a fallen pop star with issues (to put it mildly).  This is a review of what is basically a concert movie in rehearsal form.  "This Is It" is a documentary only because cameras were rolling during the long rehearsal process that began in April and ended tragically in June.  

Don't expect any revelations about  Jackson's final hours.  There's no crusading reporter firing probing questions at anyone involved. There's no hospital or funeral footage. "This Is It" amounts to a rare, final valentine to one of the world's most heralded pop sensations.

Frankly, no one should expect  anything else in a movie hitting theaters so soon after his death, especially a film "produced with the full support of the Estate of Michael Jackson."

Jackson and his gifted farewell concert collaborators (dancers, musicians, crew) were only eight days away from leaving for London, the site of Jackson's planned concerts, when a long summer afternoon slowly confirmed the shocking news of Jackson's death.

Ortega ("High School Musical 3:  Senior Year"), a filmmaker who understands music and live theater, worked with Jackson for 20 years.  It couldn't have been easy to shift gears from creatively directing Jackson's on-stage swan song to picking up the pieces -- technically and emotionally -- of shattered plans and reshaping them into a posthumous big-screen tribute.

It doesn't matter if you're a Michael Jackson fan (music or otherwise) or not.  "This Is It" is a surprising must-see for anyone who appreciates the tremendous power the marriage of music, film and a dynamic performer out front can stir deep within.

Rousing at times when the first notes of Jackson staples like "Beat It" or "Thriller" rock the house, this is also a movie experience ripe in nuance.   Every breath, every sound, every head bob and, yes, even every crotch grab in the upbeat tunes and soulful ballads like "Human Nature" have the distinctive Michael Jackson spin.

Look closely, though, and you'll see a severely thin, gaunt 50-year-old behind the dark sunglasses trying, in vain more than once, to find his breath alongside his younger principal dancers.

More importantly from this aisle seat, this is a rare first look at Jackson's meticulous creative process.  Frankly, the man's dedication and quiet insistence on doing things his way, or "The way I wrote it," Jackson says, makes for an enlightening, toe-tapping nearly two hours of odd cinema that is constantly revealing and, for the most part, quite brilliant.

So bravo, Mr. Ortega.  You have pulled off the ultimate definition of making lemonade out of lemons.

And your lemonade rocks!  Judging from the raw ingredients, Jackson's first concert in a decade would have been a hell of a show.

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