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Published: Thursday, 10/29/2009

'Michael Jackson's This Is It' a fitting, thrilling tribute to the King of Pop

Welcome to the Blade blog Culture Shock, a three-times-a-week riff by Pop Culture Editor Kirk Baird on pop culture news, events, and trends. The blog will appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings here, with the odd night or off-day posting if something is merited.

It's been four months since the untimely death of Michael Jackson at the age of 50. And yet, it doesn't really seem like he's left us.

Jackson spent so many years in exile from performing that not hearing a new song from him on the radio or seeing him on stage seems oddly normal. Really, the biggest reminder that Jackson's gone is the dearth of sensational stories with his name in the headline, TV coverage of his court appearances, and the ubiquitous reports of his impending financial ruin — hardly the legacy an entertainer wants to bequeath to fans, especially if you're the King of Pop.

Which is why Jackson wanted to perform the 50 comeback concerts at London's O2 arena in July; why he needed to perform them. Yes, the hefty payment for the shows was necessary to ease his mounting debt — let's not be na ve — but more than that, Jackson desperately wanted to prove to the world he still had it, despite booming voices to the contrary.

He wanted to remind us of the moonwalk and of “Thriller” — pop culture milestones that made people want to “Be Like Mike” years before Nike coined that marketing phrase for Michael Jordan. Jackson also wanted to prove he still mattered to a world that had moved on without him.

Michael Jackson's This Is It goes a long way toward seeing his goal realized.

A collection of footage cobbled together from 100 hours of filmed rehearsals for his London shows, This Is It is a slick, brilliantly edited piece of music propaganda that dazzles for nearly two hours. While not a complete concert film, This Is It is a sumptuous extravaganza for the eyes and ears, and powerfully captures the essence of the concert musical spectacle that never was. The footage includes Jackson performing his hits— “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” “Man in the Mirror,” among others — and having fun in the process.

Forget Jackson as the frail Golem-like creature who looked fragile enough to shatter into a thousand pieces in a strong gust of wind. This Is It showcases a virile, though slender, Jackson dusting off his vintage dance moves and high-pitch shrieks of delight, performing as if he alone is immune to the ravages of age.

This isn't just Jackson as he wanted to be remembered, but how we should remember him: the pop music and pop culture icon, whose skill as singer and performer knows only a singular rival, the equally talented and tragic Elvis Presley.

Unlike Presley's childlike subservience to Colonel Tom Parker, Michael Jackson remained in charge of his career, at least, on stage. Whether instructing the concerts' music director how to open “The Way You Make Me Feel,” or discussing choreography with the shows' director, Kenny Ortega, who also directed this musical documentary, Jackson was very much in command of the London performances.

But This Is It also gives us glimpses of Jackson's warmth, generosity, and humanity, as he laughs at jokes during performing breaks, encourages a guitarist to shine during her spotlight solo during “Beat It,” and applauds the performers and crew for their hard work and patience in making his dream a reality.

This Is It leaves no doubt that Jackson was only weeks away from staging a massive comeback for the ages that would have added a great deal of polish and luster to a weathered, tarnished career — which is why there's an inescapable feeling of tragedy and lingering what-ifs throughout the film. This Is It refrains from asking for audience empathy, though, and holds steady with its mandate as a simple celebration (and no doubt sanitized, to honor the deceased) of a complicated man.

As rehearsal footage masquerading as a concert film, This Is It manages to be a joyous and rousing time. And as the final piece to Jackson's legacy, the film is a powerful testimonial to the King of Pop's talent, and a poignant reminder of how he got that title in the first place.

This Is It opened last night with a worldwide debut, including Toledo. The film has a limited run of 16 days, before it is pulled from theaters.

Agree or disagree with a posting? Lemme know. Have a topic or suggestion? Lemme know that, too. Send an e-mail to kbaird@theblade.com or call 419-724-6734.

LINK: For all of Kirk Baird's Culture Shock riffs



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