Sunday, November 1, 2009

"Michael Jackson's This is It": Fitting Requiem for an Artistic Genius

I just saw "Michael Jackson's This is It," an entertaining and poignant look at Michael Jackson's last performances: his rehearsals for what he planned to be his final worldwide tour. If Jackson had not died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 50 just days before the tour would have started then we likely would never have seen the rehearsal footage, because it was originally supposed to go into Jackson's private library; I suspect that the perfectionist in Jackson might have been somewhat self conscious about the world seeing him practice but that the part of him that loved his fans would have understood how much it means to them to see and hear him perform his classic hits one last time.

The footage makes it very clear that Jackson still had his singing and dancing chops and that his final tour would have been an ambitious, bold extravaganza, featuring new audio and visual takes on his greatest hits while preserving the essence that made those songs so popular; in one practice session for "The Way You Make Me Feel," Jackson patiently worked with the musical director and other musicians to literally make sure that every single note sounded exactly right. Jackson said that he wanted each note to sound precisely the way that it did on his albums because that is what the fans expect--yet he also jazzed up (or funked up) certain parts of some songs as well, making them sound familiar and yet new at the same time. You don't have to be a musical expert to quickly notice that Jackson not only had a highly tuned ear that detected the subtlest difference between musical notes but also that he was very good at explaining/demonstrating exactly what he expected the other musicians to do. Jackson made his points softly, with a generous sharing spirit; he involved others in the creative process as opposed to simply dictating to them what to do. On several occasions when a dancer or musician messed up, Jackson quietly offered a correction and said, without any evident frustration, "That is why we have rehearsal."

During one segment, Jackson and others worked out the sequence in which various effects would happen. Jackson wanted to give a hand signal as a cue to start one effect, but the director asked Jackson how Jackson would know the right time to give the signal because Jackson would not be able to see when the preceding effect behind him had finished. Jackson thought for a beat, then said that he would know when to make the cue by "feel." That simple reply is a touchstone of his genius and made me think of how a grandmaster once said that Bobby Fischer could throw a chess piece in the air and it would land on the right square: one aspect of genius is an innate "feel" for how something should be done, indeed how it must be done--and yet it is very important to understand that this innate "feel" must be honed by thousands of hours of practice in order to fully blossom. Fischer arguably had the most talent but it is inarguable that he worked extraordinarily diligently.

While it certainly would have been wonderful to see Jackson successfully complete his concert tour, I find it fascinating to get a glimpse of his behind the scenes work ethic; when I go to NBA games one of my favorite things to do is watch the players warm up--not just the cursory warmup that takes place minutes before tip-off but also the practicing that they do before the doors open to the general public: I will never forget watching Reggie Miller's extensive, highly programmed shooting routine, starting with layups and then moving outward progressively. Miller is one of the greatest long-range shooters ever but he practiced layups before every single game! Miller had a tremendous "feel" for shooting but he honed that "feel" with his diligent attention to detail. I only saw Michael Jordan in person twice--once in a preseason game during his first comeback and once in a regular season game during his second comeback--and what struck me most about those two games was the shots that Jordan practiced beforehand: he concentrated mainly on turnaround jumpers in the post/midpost and free throws; Jordan had obviously shot those shots thousands of times previously but he never stopped working on perfecting his touch from his primary scoring areas. Jordan neither wasted time with shots that he would not shoot in a game nor did he neglect to practice any shot that he likely would take. This summer, Kobe Bryant--who has been the most complete player in the NBA for years--worked out with Hakeem Olajuwon to learn low post moves. Jordan, Bryant and Miller could be described as basketball geniuses but they understand that their "feel" for the game must be constantly honed. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young expresses a similar sentiment when he speaks of the "craft" of quarterbacking.

Jackson worked hard during the rehearsals and yet he seemed to experience great joy; he talked about preserving his voice for the upcoming tour but he could not resist singing through complete songs at full force, much to the delight of the assembled dancers, musicians and work crew--Jackson lightheartedly chided them for giving him so much love that he felt obligated to sing instead of simply walking through the choreography.

Some of Jackson's collaborators seemed understandably star-struck; on a couple occasions, he had to gesture to a dancer to complete a move instead of simply watching what Jackson did. Jackson encouraged everyone to express their talents fully; he told lead guitarist Orianthi Panagaris that a certain guitar solo was her "time to shine" and that she should hit the highest note that she could muster.

Jackson emphasized that he intended for his concert tour to not only entertain but to also spread the important message that we must love each other and we must tenderly care for our ailing planet before it is too late. Music and dance emanate from a place deep within the human soul and that is why the artistry of great musicians and dancers resonates so powerfully. I have always thought that in Jackson's Egyptian-themed "Remember the Time" video the real power rested not with Eddie Murray's Pharoah character--a leader whose mere gesture of disapproval could lead to someone's execution--but rather with Jackson's character (a sort of court jester), because Jackson had the ability to inspire wonder from all those around him; even if the Pharoah's henchmen had captured and killed the Jackson character anyone who had seen him perform for Pharoah would have never forgotten him, so the Jackson character was truly immortal--much like Jackson himself is. In "My Philosophy," KRS-ONE very poetically expressed that creators have enduring power far superior to the power held by political and business leaders: "Who gets weaker? The king or the teacher?/It's not about a salary, it's all about reality/Teachers teach and do the world good/Kings just rule and most are never understood/If you were to rule or govern a certain industry/All inside this room right now would be in misery/No one would get along nor sing a song/'Cause everyone'd be singing for the king, am I wrong?"

Jackson clearly experienced "flow" during these rehearsal sessions. It is our loss that he is no longer with us to continue to create music--and his sister Janet Jackson made a poignant comment shortly after his death when she said that to the rest of the world Michael Jackson is an icon but to her he is family--but it could also be said that Jackson died while doing what he most liked to do and at a time when he was still able to perform at a high level; unlike the last images of a bloated Elvis Presley, who--though still young--had already seen his best days, "Michael Jackson's This is It" shows an artist who still possessed vibrancy, creativity and energy. Jackson's rehearsal performances are achingly beautiful and at times they moved me to tears--tears of joy from watching a great artist in a "flow" state, tears of sadness that he is gone and even tears of relief in the sense that Jackson has been released from the internal demons and external critics who hounded him.

"Michael Jackson's This is It" will only be in theaters for a two week run starting October 28, so if you want to see it on the big screen then you need to act quickly.

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