Work and Soul in Michael Jackson´s This Is It (Special Series Part 1 & 2): The Human Nature of Dance

  by Aberjhani (African—American Art Examiner) on

November 14, 2009

It says a lot that even while its principle star struggled to conserve creative energy and was simply “warming up” for the actual live performance scheduled to follow, Michael Jackson’s This Is It snagged the October 30 weekend box office in the United States with $21,300,000. It says even more that just two weeks after its opening, as of November 12, 2009, the movie has played in 3,481 theaters worldwide and generated just under $200 million in ticket sales. At this point, going by the numbers alone, This Is It ranks second among the top-grossing music concert movieonly to 2008’s Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tours. However, the latter film accumulated sales over a run of fifteen weeks. Compare that to the former movie’s much shorter run and you have the basis for arguing that This Is It in less than a single month has become the number one music concert film in movie history.

The Human Nature of the Dance

With a brilliant fusion of rehearsal performances for sixteen songs and samples from numerous others, absorbing video footage, and informed commentaries, the rockumentary delivers everything those hoping to attend Jackson’s “comeback” concert could have hoped for with the principle exceptions being two things: Jackson’s flesh and blood real-time presence and body-to-body contact with throngs of screaming fans.

This Is It opens to an image of dancers who are not yet in musical motion. Later in the film, viewers will see their bodies at times ferociously animated or seductively elegant. At other times they will form part of a privileged audience watching a master showman at work. As director Kenny Ortega puts it, “the dancers are an extension of Michael.”

For the opening we get their faces, voices, and emotions as they speak briefly about the personal journeys that have brought them to this historic event: the much buzzed-about rehearsals for the King of Pop’s planned final concert tour:

One dancer says, “I’m excited. You have inspired everything in my life, my energy. You’re why I dance.”

Another: “I wanted to dance. That inspiration came from you. And you’ve inspired me and given me a reason to want to inspire others.”

And another: “I’ve kind of been searching for something to shake me up a little bit, and give me a, kind of a meaning, to believe in something, and this is it.”

Some of the dancers can barely speak because they cannot believe where they are and that their names are now associated with a man whose blood, sweat, and soul have been defining elements of pop culture since they were born. When they do speak, often they express gratitude for an opportunity that would not exist if the famous “Man in the Mirror” had not challenged himself at the age of forty-nine to tap once more into the seemingly eternal fountain of creative brilliance that allowed him as a child to blast through the world of entertainment like a comet of visions that only blazes through the Milky Way every other century.

The expressed gratitude is not sycophantic in any way. They comprise a natural response to Jackson as a cheerful giver who, seemingly through his own eyes, was never able to give too much or even quite enough. It, the gratitude, is also very natural because these are, after all, dancers. Artists like MJ himself. And they have just found excellent employment during a horrifying recession.

For these particular dancers, even more important than the promise of a better-than-decent gig in a field where plum gigs rarely come along, is the miraculous chance to work with and learn from a legend, someone whose genius could add a greater luster to their talents for the rest of their working dreaming dancers’ lives.

The Miracle of Children

References to Joe Jackson’s, the singer’s father, hard-driving task-master style of parenting and management are commonplace in stories about Michael Jackson’s childhood. The image has been documented by Jackson himself in the autobiographical Moonwalker as well as in television and magazine interviews. The most damning testimony of all, however, against the emotional and physical abuse he endured as a boy for the sake of growing into a great performer, might be the song “Childhood.” In that painfully bruised evocation, we hear a wounded soul asking the world to seek understanding of his life before attempting to judge his person. We also, tragically, hear that same soul struggling to find something that can never be fully reclaimed.

The Miracle of Our Children

In many ways, this heart-squeezing song is one that could be sung with conviction by many, if not most, of the Black youth of Jackson’s generation. Without presenting this observation as any kind of excuse whatsoever, the fact is that the severe discipline practiced by Joe Jackson at the time was typical in many households throughout African America. So was the use of humiliating insults ––in Michael’s case they were aimed at his nose–– presumed to keep a person’s ego in check, but which caused some sensitive “artist types” to develop neurotic compulsions, obsessions, and fixations.

Moreover, it may be argued that Black parents took their model for correcting or shaping the behavior of their children from the dominant culture of American society in general. After all, if oppressive racism, sexism, and class-discrimination were nothing else, they were socially sanctioned forms of dehumanizing aggravation.

Whereas such practices are now described as abuse, in the mid-twentieth century Black parents were often considered neglectful if they did not “cut that child’s behind” (a.k.a. spank or beat them) to “keep them in line” or make them recognize certain social boundaries before crossing any such lines. They were also employed to teach children resilience --or make them "tough"-- against the hard knocks they inevitably would encounter in life. The younger Jackson discarded the philosophy of corporal punishment. He developed instead an outlook that was summed up in his 2001 “Heal the Kids” speech at Oxford and which included this plea to the world: “Together, let us create a symphony of hearts, marveling at the miracle of our children and basking in the beauty of love.”
Creative Detail

The son’s is a more gentle guiding hand than the father’s reportedly was but is nevertheless clearly visible in This Is It, particularly when it comes to any lessons in resilience and determination that may have carried over. The first song to explode booming and rocking off the screen is “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Jackson does more listening than singing during this particular rehearsal and at the song’s end comments that the bass is not where it should be: “It’s funkier.” The pursuit of that extra precise measurement of funk is one hallmark of the composer’s genius. For other songs, it is the insertion of a three-second interval as opposed to a one-second interval, or a small gesture synchronized with a big beat.

The passionate attention to creative detail is a leftover from Jackson’s days of training with his brothers, one that he could privately smile about and for which his fellow musicians thanked him. They appreciate the deep intimacy he shares with his music and say as much. He makes the work ––all 9 to 12 hours or more per day of it–– an experience of memorable pleasure and lasting artistic empowerment.

Back to Michael Jackson´s Mystery