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Originally published October 28, 2009 at 9:09 AM | Page modified October 29, 2009 at 3:13 PM

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Movie review

'Michael Jackson's This is It': Fascinating but short of thrilling

"Michael Jackson's This Is It," a slapdash collection of rehearsal footage of what was to be his farewell live performances, is often fascinating but ultimately a shallow homage to the good memories of the King of Pop.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Michael Jackson's This Is It,' a documentary directed by Kenny Ortega. 112 minutes. Rated PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images. Several theaters.

One thing is clear from the slapdash rehearsal footage of what was to be Michael Jackson's farewell live performances in "This Is It": The King of Pop knew exactly what he wanted.

A lot of people are presuming that Jackson would have wanted his adoring fans to experience what they might have seen had the shows not been so tragically canceled. The King himself is beyond caring whether anyone sees this often fascinating document of his collaborative, yet fanatically personal work process. Nonetheless, many of those who claim to know his mind stand to gain enormous profits from his posthumous popularity, which will undoubtedly soar even higher because of "This is It."

In a swath of clips shot mostly on a bare stage at the cavernously empty Staples Center arena in Los Angeles, the sessions are a decidedly mixed bag. Practice runs of pretty much all his greatest hits are captured in a combination of high- and low-definition video with little thought to style or formal technique (the footage was never intended for anything other than Jackson's preparation and personal archive). Sequences often cut between different takes of the same number, with Jackson sporting an assortment of casual attire — for him, that is — and giving varying degrees of his all to the singing and dancing.

There's the occasional diversion of fawning eulogies to his genius and niceness, or glimpses of staging designs and specially filmed elements that hint at how the show would have made a truly sensational theatrical musical experience for the audience. Unfortunately, the fact that this stuff was never meant to be seen is a central inadequacy of "This is It" as a movie; it's a rough-cut, the buildup for something that never comes.

Still, there's an undeniable magnetism and sadness in the narrative because we know the tabloid story. Jackson appears lithe, focused and remarkably in control. His athletic body moves remain electrifying and not at all consistent with the image of a drug-addled recluse.

In several intimate episodes, he reveals a remarkable lack of conventional ability to express himself to his crew, band and troupe of gifted acrobatic dancers. Nevertheless, they understand exactly what he means when he says "let it simmer," "bathe in the moonlight" or "it's all for love."

With the hundreds of hours of raw footage at his command, director Kenny Ortega had plenty of room to craft Michael Jackson's final days into the upbeat legacy his fans crave. Ultimately, though, "This Is It" is a shallow homage to the good memories of the King of Pop.

Ted Fry:

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