By Sean Collier
November 5, 2009
The fundamental question surrounding Michael Jackson's This Is It has been answered rather banally. It was, of course, "Could it be as big as the promoters would have us think?" The answer, obviously, was "No, of course not."
AEG Live, the erstwhile promoters of MJ's planned concert tour and now peddlers of the pseudo-concert film of the same name, tried to convince the masses that the film had an outside shot at $250 million worldwide in one weekend. The film didn't earn half that, pulling in a more routinely impressive $101 million around the planet, mostly on the strength of Jackson's continued global appeal.
AEG was quick to pat themselves on the back, despite performing well below tracking. A congratulatory press release trumpeted the fact that This Is It now qualified as "the highest grossing concert film of all time." I'm reminded of what Rolling Stone said about Jackon's Blood on the Dance Floor remix album: "Blood eneded up being the bestelling remix disc ever; at this point, MJ was breaking records no one cared about." Yes, that's a very nice claim to make, but no one was ever particularly concerned with claiming a concert film box office record in the first place.
In the run-up to This Is It's hasty release, the question on my mind was not about performance. As a born-again Jackson fan, I didn't know how to feel about the project; was this film a final gift to fans, or was this simply AEG profiting off the fervor and renewed fandom surrounding Michael's death?
In favor of AEG, fans did seem to demand as much MJ as they could buy over the summer. The Billboard Top Pop Catalog Album chart – which tracks performance by basically every album ever released, as long as it's 18 months old and no longer in the Hot 100 – featured Jackson albums in nine of the top ten positions the week following his death (and all of the top twelve two weeks later.) Jackson's songs were downloaded on iTunes and Amazon one million times in the seven days after his death; this number has never been touched. CD manufacturing plants buckled under the demand. Amazon ran out of every MJ album they had. Can one hurl a death profiteering charge around when people were so desperately trying to spend money on Jackson?
Resolved not to pass judgment on the film until I had seen it, I was somewhat surprised to see the accompanying album on sale in the movie theater lobby. Regardless of whether or not the film itself can be seen as profiteering, the album certainly can; a glorified MJ mixtape with a few throwaway bonus tracks attached, it's an unnecessary rehash in the face of countless other Jackson compilations. My irritation grew at the ticket counter, where concert t-shirts were on sale; not just shirts commemorating the film, but the very shirts intended to be sold in London during the performances.
Clearly, someone was trying to wring every dime possible out of This Is It. The marketing and promotion of the film spoke to that as well; by making the (immediately abandoned) claim that the film would only be in theaters for two weeks and hyping the pre-sale to no end, AEG was trying to create a false sense of urgency (a la Paranormal Activity) and drive up ticket sales.
All this did not fully turn me against the project, however. It took the film itself to do that. This Is It is an interesting documentary, and an engaging look at Michael, the artist and perfectionist at work; in these respects, it is a success. However, as AEG Live has repeatedly reminded us, this is not a documentary; it is a concert film. It is Michael "as you have never seen him before." And as a concert film, it's dreadful, for one simple reason: it is not a performance. It is a rehearsal, and not even a dress rehearsal; it is a work in progress. Michael half-sings, half-dances, skips lines, repeats lines, loses his place, stops, starts, apologizes for his meek performance, and only rarely truly shines. Certainly, half of Michael Jackson is more engaging than all of most artists, but the attempt to edit these fragments into performances rings false.
And – we can't forget – Michael Jackson would have absolutely hated this film. A consummate showman above all else, Michael would not have allowed footage of him at 50% to be seen by his fans. As (admittedly quirky) sister LaToya put it, "Michael always wants to give his best. This is a rehearsal. He wasn't giving his all...He wants people to see him at the top of the ladder and not half-stepping because he doesn't want to do a full-out rehearsal."
If the footage contained in This Is It were brilliant performance, a near-perfect gem that Jackson's fans simply deserved to see, then AEG would be free of culpability, even with the promotion and grandiose claims and t-shirts and album sales. Given the true nature of the film, however, the true colors of the promotion team are shown; robbed of a big payday by Jackson's untimely death, they immediately set about trying to figure out how to recoup their losses, at Jackson's expense.
Jackson's legacy is on his albums, and will remain there. Other performances – performances that Jackson would want you to see – can be found. The product being hocked by AEG Live in theaters right now does not represent the artist and performer that died this summer; don't be fooled.