Michael Jackson had been under such intense scrutiny in his final years especially over the unsettling aspects of his personal life that his art often became obscured in the process. When Kevin Courrier set out to review Kenny Ortega's film This is It in Critics at Large, about the rehearsals for the tour Michael Jackson never did, he decided to reconsider the work as well as the man.
Jackson prances like a cat through "Wanna Be Startin' Something" in the opening number, but he can be utterly transfixing in the a Capella version of "Human Nature." The song "Smooth Criminal" shows him inserted in footage from Gilda (1946) with Rita Hayworth singing "Put the Blame on Mame" just for him (where, shortly after, Bogart in The Big Sleep jealously hunts him down). Jackson's showmanship is seldom separated from the mythical baggage he creates around him. But This is It is also a strange piece of work because we watch it with the recognition that Jackson is now gone and the show - with its dynamism and its ostentatious peculiarities - exists now purely in our own head. Kenny Ortega (at least until the unbearably saccharine ending) manages to keep the picture dancing and our final look at Jackson, without argument, shows us why, as critic Charles Taylor said in Dissent, no performer before Jackson "ever appealed across racial, sexual, class, national boundaries to the extent that Michael Jackson did."
Some of the best words on Jackson can be found in Mikal Gilmore’s wonderful book, Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll (Doubleday, 1998), which also includes perceptive essays on The Allman Brothers Band, Frank Sinatra, Prince and Lou Reed. He characterizes Jackson’s contribution to pop succinctly: “Michael Jackson…[is] an astonishing singer whose vocalizing is both a consummation of R&B history as well as a fresh new start…who embodies the whole spectrum of black dance style from Cab Calloway to James Brown and then some…Jackson is a half-mad and extraordinary talent in a nation that both sanctifies him and hates him for his prowess – and either response spells a difficult artistic future.” These are quite prescient observations – but he goes even further. “He lives in – as critic Dave Marsh once pointed out – a trap, and while much of it is of his own doing, no doubt some of it is of our making as well.” He then summarizes Jackson by quoting from poet William Carlos Williams who once said, “The pure products of America go crazy.” Critic Peter Guralnick often used those lines to define Elvis after his death. But what drove those pure products mad: their purity or our corruption of it?This is It only goes so far as to give us the pure excitement of Michael Jackson's art.