x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

This Is It

The posthumous Michael Jackson tribute treads too carefully around the late singer to be interesting.

After months of secrecy, the final footage of Michael Jackson performing finally arrived on our screens, as 20 premieres happened simultaneously around the world. This meant that the London screening, which I saw, took place at 1am GMT yesterday. It was an especially poignant occasion as it was in the British capital that the singer had been due to perform the series of concerts that he was preparing for when he died.

The film is an exercise in discretion. It is a concert movie, one that makes no attempt to get inside the man, or show him in anything other than a positive light. Most of the action is footage of Jackson at various rehearsals, going through moves for such hits as Thriller and The Way You Make Me Feel. Rarely, a song is shown - Billie Jean, for example - in which the so-called King of Pop seems to nail the tune in one continuous performance. To be fair, at the time of filming the singer still had several more weeks before he was due to perform in London.

Kenny Ortega, who was directing the stage show, also directs the film, so it's no surprise that This Is It shows Jackson as a hard-working singing and dancing machine. The action is confined almost exclusively to the controversial singer, dressed in various costumes, rehearsing from April until June this year as Ortega attempts to show what the concerts would have looked like, had they taken place.

The film opens with an explanation that the footage was being shot mainly for Jackson's own use, but also for a DVD that was going to accompany the tour. It is soon apparent that the singer was a long way from his best, labouring through his dance moves - and this is despite the use of jump-cuts and cross-cutting to give the impression of a single performance. There are hardly any interviews and none at all with Jackson himself. This is a real shame, as what interview footage there is - of the dancers as they excitedly get ready to work on the tour - is one of the highlights of the film. There is one Australian dancer who can't hold back the tears.

Alas, such moments are rare, as Ortega instead decided to concentrate on footage of Jackson. The first number is Something Got Me Started, closely followed by the singer announcing that he is going to do a comeback tour in which, he says, he's going to give the fans what he believes they want: a concert packed full of his most popular tunes. And so the pattern is set. The movie trots out the hits, but it's clear that the singer was long past his heyday.

Not only does Ortega make no attempt to get inside the mind of Jackson, à la Martin Bashir, but the cameramen also seem scared of the star. Every single shot of him looks as though it has been selected by his publicist. Every time the lens gets too close to Jackson's face there is a quick pullback into long shot. It is symptomatic of a film that treads way too carefully around the star and the desire to preserve his image as the consummate entertainer.

There are some sublime moments, especially footage of Jackson that is mixed in with The Big Sleep, which was going to be used to introduce Smooth Criminal. There was also to have been a video featuring clones, playing in the background as They Don't Care About Us was played. There are some clever cuts and some great green screen footage. It is also revealed that the concert was to have had a very strong environmental message.

What the film does not do, nor even attempt, is provide any information that would give any insight into the circumstances surrounding the musician's death or his state of mind at the time. It's a shame that Jackson's passing seems to have made the singer untouchable - for the time being at least - as one must assume that more explosive footage of him exists. It just has no place in this uninspiring film.