The greatest show that never was

Michael Jackson’s death on June 25 this year was all the more poignant in that it was less than three weeks before he was to begin a series of 50 concerts.

The concerts scheduled to take place at The O2 arena in London would have been his “final curtain call”.

It would have been his first significant concert event since his 1997 HIStory world tour, and despite the ugly controversies that have dogged him since then, the public responded with wild enthusiasm and all 50 concerts were sold out in record-smashing time.

So it’s no surprise that Anschutz Entertainnment Group (AEG) Live, the concert organizers, decided to cobble together a concert film from the footage of Jackson rehearsing for the concert, which was reportedly meant for the star’s personal archives.

Michael Jackson’s This is It, “directed” by Jackson’s choreographer Kenny Ortega (Dirty Dancing, High School Musical), was released worldwide on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, for an apparently limited two-week theatrical run. It’s both a chance to give the disappointed fans a little of what they missed out on – and more importantly, recoup the lost profits.

This is It certainly proves that the O2 concerts would have been truly unforgettable, and that it would have been more grand theatre than concert, with lavish, technologically ground-breaking set pieces accompanying Jackson’s greatest hits. More than 20 of his songs were featured.

“The Way You Make Me Feel” was set against a New York City backdrop, with silhouetted back-up clicking their fingers in a faux construction site. For “Bad” and “They Don’t Really Care About Us”, 11 back-up dancers, wearing futuristic army gear, were multiplied into a legion of 1,100 soldiers via green screen.

The most breathtaking sequence was fittingly the epic *Thriller”, with a haunting graveyard set, elaborately costumed corpse brides and ghoulish grooms, enhanced by 3D segments, where the audience would have enjoyed the creatures popping out of the screen.

Jackson’s support was impressive too, with the film sharing the extremely competitive audition process for his elite team of back-up dancers, and a chance to get to know his supporting musicians, such as backup singer Judith Hill, who was a clear, soulful set of vocal chords and lead guitarist Orianthi Panigaris, a Greek-Australian with a touch of the glam rock star about her.

All those working with Jackson are unanimously reverential, wildly applauding every rehearsed song and extolling the wonders of the man.

The star himself comes across well in the production, but there are no real insights into him, despite the tagline’s promise that it will show him “as you’ve never seen him before”. He seems childlike – using the word love a lot when talking about his work and his team, even spelling it out (“L-O-V-E”) several times – and a perfectionist performer. All things you would expect.

The only really startling element is the prolonged exposure to his frail state during the film – he looks so terribly thin, tired and aged, especially compared to his healthy dancers. He still had the moves, and the voice, but all his fire seemed extinguished – there was nothing left of his former raw sexual energy when reprising steps from “Beat It” and “Bad”. Jackson looks like a man who should have been resting and focusing on regaining his health – instead of pushing himself relentlessly for an overwhelmingly huge concert run.

While Michael Jackson’s This is It is certainly a must-see for his fans, and thankfully avoids the potential for sentimentality, it is a sad viewing experience, as with hindsight, every exertion seems to bring the star closer to his premature death. The awesome theatrics cannot distract from his fragility. Even so, the “This is It” concert run would have probably been the greatest show on earth – but the very fact of it was probably its – and Jackson’s – ultimate undoing.

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