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Finding Neverland

Michael Jackson's This Is It (2009)

Kevin Mazur/AEG/Getty Images

Genuine tribute or cynical money making ploy? That question has surrounded “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” since the project — a compilation of rehearsal footage and behind the scenes interviews accrued during the run-up to Jackson’s planned 50 dates at London’s O2 Arena — was announced shortly after the King of Pop’s death. By keeping the film shrouded in secrecy, first showing it to most critics last night and at a courtesy screening this morning, Sony Pictures and AEG Live did little to stem the tide of suspicion.

It’s happy news, then, that the movie’s biggest crime is not that it represents a manipulation or a bastardization of Jackson’s image so his tour producers might make back a buck. Rather, the film by Jackson’s creative partner and concert director, Kenny Ortega, suffers from the safe affliction that befalls most similar ventures. “For the fans,” the declaration that immediately follows Mr. Ortega’s opening director’s credit should be taken seriously, as there’s not much for the rest of us to respond to here.

This is not the space to consider Jackson’s complicated legacy or the broader societal ramifications of the mini-culture war that erupted in the United States after his death. Many dozens of movies could be made about so controversial a figure; one could not rationally expect a film produced in the wake of his tragic death — with the pain still so palpable for those involved in its making — to be anything but an admiring tribute to his undeniable artistic brilliance. Yet beyond revealing Jackson to have been — duh — a hard worker, the picture offers little insight in that vein.

Instead, it’s devoted exclusively to the enormous undertaking that was to be his multimillion-dollar concert series. The special effects — never to be seen on a live stage — are shown off, and they’re impressive. Lines of dancing soldiers stretch to infinity, well beyond an arch engulfed by a heavenly glow. Humphrey Bogart chases Jackson; an indigenous girl ponders the beauty of the rain forest; and “Thriller” gets a ghoulish 3-D reimagining. The pyrotechnic team shows off its elaborate bag of tricks. Mr. Ortega centers the picture around the development of the stage performances of multiple major hits, including “Smooth Criminal,” “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.” Jackson alternately soothes and pushes his dancers and creative team.

It’s a real spectacle, one befitting of a man who too often lived as one; but by so emphasizing the physical apparatus, the process that created Jackson’s onstage magic, Mr. Ortega loses any real sense of it. “This Is It” is a film about a technical achievement that never was, not the great artist we've all lost. The filmmaker’s likely reasons for pursuing it are admirable: It offers ticket buyers to the never-performed concert series a chance to see what they’d missed, one more opportunity for Jackson fans to celebrate his legacy and some small reward for all those involved in the grueling rehearsal process. But anyone not intrinsically enthralled by the very idea of seeing Jackson in his element will have a hard time caring about just how big the firewalls were to have been, how many green screens were to have been used and the precise nature of Jackson’s musical-cue preferences.


Opened on Oct. 28 in the United States and in Britain.

Directed by Kenny Ortega; concert production created by Michael Jackson and Mr. Ortega; directors of photography, Tim Patterson and Sandrine Orabona; edited by Don Brochu, Brandon Key, Mr. Patterson and Kevin Stitt; music by Michael Bearden; choreography by Mr. Jackson and Travis Payne; production designer, Michael Cotten; produced by Randy Phillips, Mr. Ortega and Paul Gongaware; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. This film is rated PG.


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