What you notice about Michael Jackson's swan song This is It is what isn't on screen.
No deafening applause. No throngs of screaming fans. No give-and-take between artist and admirers typically seen in concert movies.
This is It isn't a typical concert movie, in structure or purpose. Never intended for theaters, this video assemblage was shot while Jackson rehearsed for a 50-concert series in London that tragically never was.
Jackson won't enjoy what happens worldwide with This is It, if a capacity crowd in Tampa is any indication; cheering and sighing at his quicksilver dancing and shimmering voice, impulsively expressing love as if Jackson were there to hear it.
But you can sense Jackson anticipating that, witness him working perhaps too tirelessly for it, in an incomparable movie since nothing like this happened before. Not with Elvis, not with Frank.
Unlike Presley at the end, Jackson wanted to prove himself again. Unlike Sinatra, he needed to. Neither legend had camera crews trailing them until hours before dying. The late King of Pop did. And now, This is It.
Director Kenny Ortega — whom Jackson trusted with staging his comeback and survivors entrusted with this cine-memorial — orchestrated a minor miracle with This is It, culling footage from weeks of rehearsals into a surprisingly smooth, energetic idea of what a 21st century Michael Jackson concert would be.
It would be stunning, an explosion of pyro and visual effects framing one of the greatest performers ever, who at age 50 hadn't appeared to lose a step or octave. Of course, the Jackson family's deal with in allowing This is It to be made prevents including anything to diminish his image. Jackson appears invincible, and only cynics will object.
The fact that Ortega isn't filming a concert but constructing one creates minor problems. Jackson's volume occasionally fades, as audio is tweaked. Wardrobes often changing during nearly each song betray how much patchwork editing Ortega needed.
Yet that also shows how precise Jackson was, physically and tonally. No matter what he's wearing, the performances are practically the same in each take. Close your eyes and you'd think he's singing start to finish. Keep them open and you're dazzled by his dancing.
Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' and Jam are followed by They Don't Care About Us and the movie's most touching shot: Jackson bathed in mellow, slowly fading blue lighting. Just before darkness, a sweet, satisfied smile crosses his face. He's happy, and in that moment so are we.
Take your pick of highlights: Jackson's ethereal falsetto on Human Nature, The Way You Make Me Feel slowed to a groggy groove before erupting, Smooth Criminal with Jackson digitally co-starring with Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth, one of several backdrop videos planned for concerts.
Those video creations expand This is It when the rehearsal regimen grows stale. A graveyard filled with 3D zombies is a Thriller. Earth Song gets an eye-popping eco-fantasy forest decimated by fire a bulldozer that later emerges onstage.
A few performances fall short of expectations but as Jackson reminds his team several times: "That's what rehearsal is for." Billie Jean is a perfunctory run-through with hardly a moonwalk. Several times, Jackson leans too much toward recreating music video choreography rather than dazzling anew.
But that's what Jackson thought was expected, giving people what they know by heart, perfect as possible. Ortega begins This is It with the dedication " for the fans," making us believe that would've been Jackson's shout-out, too.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.