Unfortunately, the image I can’t shake from This Is It isn’t Michael Jackson working through the steps of “Billie Jean” or creating the dance sequence for “Thriller.” It’s Michael Jackson standing at the podium—creamy complexion, misshapen nose, rail thin, wig-like hair, chin dimple like tiny a wedge cut from his skull—in front of a seal for “The King of Pop.” The mega success of Thriller thrust the office upon him, and it wore him down like a president. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, which the King of Pop mutated into something so unreal he’s hard to look at.
This image is the uneasy metaphor of Michael Jackson’s career. The childhood glee of the Jackson 5 and the personal music of Off the Wall gave way to the tabloids of the post-Thriller era, where the music wasn’t really the story. For casual Jackson fans—which most of us are—it’s hard to remember how much great music Jackson wrote after 1984: “Smooth Criminal,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Black or White”—there’s a least a dozen quality songs. As we watched the King whittle away at his body and descend into genuine weirdness, it became really hard to take him and his music seriously. Weird Al’s mainstream success is based largely on this proposition. Only later, away from the Neverland Ranch and marriage to Lisa Marie and hanging his baby of the rail and sexual predator trials and all the rest, can we really appreciate how genuinely moving Michael Jackson’s post-Thriller music is.
This Is It focuses on several late-career Jackson songs, some of which I never thought seriously about until now. “They Don’t Care About Us,” an acapella “Human Nature,” and a knock-out version of “Man in the Mirror” are highlights, and even the pretentious “Earth Song” comes across as sincere and personal. Still, “Earth Song” presents us with the paradox of Michael Jackson: Can you take seriously a song about the beauty of nature from a man with a plastic nose?
That the answer is yes is a testament to the power of This Is It. Mega-production choreographer/ director Kenny Ortega (all the High School Musical films, Super Bowls, the Olympics, etc.) has helped Jackson put together a spectacle to dwarf even U2’s 360 Tour spaceship. Basically, they’ve created a live-action music video for each of Jackson’s hits, tied together by an aesthetic that can only be called Synthetic Intimacy.
Synthetic Intimacy is what all megastars must achieve in the mass media age. Once you achieve a certain stardom, the old life of clubs and music halls are left behind and you graduate to the stadium. To survive without selling out, the key is to create an intimate spectacle. It’s a paradox only the great ones can pull off. Michael Jackson is the one pop musician who truly went from being the Prince Hal of Motown and became the King Henry V of pop superstardom. No matter how big he got, the music was still good.
This Is It the concert achieves Synthetic Intimacy by using the technology of megaspectacle to mimic reality—as if what we’re watching isn’t really a concert stage. The verdant greens of “Earth Song” burst from a giant electronic canvass, with Jackson convinces us of the soft-spot he’s always had for nature. The “Thriller” zombies aren’t, well, real—no CGI, just hours of makeup. Jackson is green-screened into a shootout with Humphrey Bogart, looking like he’s right there with Rita Hayworth in a forties-era gangster movie to introduce “Smooth Criminal.” The film ends with Jackson singing “Man in the Mirror,” telling us that he going to change his ways. It begs the question: What does Michael Jackson see when he looks at the man in the mirror? Is it the same plastic man the rest of us sees? Does he see this thing he’s created as the “real” Michael? Or, as Henry V tells us, when you wear the crown, can be no more “real” you?
All we truly know is the Michael Jackson we’ve seen in the media—the guy who resembles “South Park”’s Mr. Jefferson more than anything else. The weirdness—the Neverland train, Bubbles the Chimp, nicknaming a child “Blanket”—is likely a manifestation of a sensitive man caught at the advent of smothering celebrity coverage. This Is It pulls back the curtain to show us an artist who seems like he’s only truly at home on the stage—where he controls his world, where the band looks for his cue to give the music “more booty,” where a man stands alone, unbothered, creating dance moves no one else is capable of. In these quiet moments, This Is It the film achieves real intimacy. We see the Michael Jackson that remained unchanged by Thriller—the same kid who told us “I Want You Back” is the same man who told us to “Remember the Time.” Michael Jackson’s plastic nose still breathed.