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‘This Is It’ a fascinating work-in-progress

“This Is It” invites us to imagine a finished product that never came about. To watch Michael Jackson move is to witness one of the great entertainers of the modern age.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Many of the musicians and craftsmen interviewed in “This Is It” talk about Michael Jackson’s perfectionism, so it begs the question: Would Michael Jackson have wanted this movie of rehearsal footage to be seen by mass audiences?

Filmed during a series of run-throughs for a London concert engagement that was canceled after Jackson’s untimely death this summer, “This Is It” takes us behind the scenes of what was going to be a gargantuan show, complete with dancers, filmed segments, pyrotechnics and acrobatics. The footage was meant for Jackson’s personal archival use; only after Jackson’s death did the concert promoters and others involved with the show decide to go public with this material.

Like any performer rehearsing for a complicated show, Jackson isn’t giving his all vocally over the course of the process — he’s figuring out segues, trying out dance steps, riding the cherry-picker and juggling any number of other issues that pop up while putting together an enterprise of this size. Subsequently, audiences who see “This Is It” expecting a traditional concert film will be disappointed; Jackson skips lines of songs while dealing with other stage matters, and even confesses at more than one point that he’s saving his voice for the real show coming up.

Where “This Is It” soars, however, is as a dance movie; to watch Michael Jackson move is to witness one of the great entertainers of the modern age. Inheriting the legacy of giants like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr. and Fred Astaire — and adding his own spin — Jackson’s dance routines here are breathtaking. Emotional interviews with his backup dancers, who have come from around the world for the rare opportunity to perform alongside their idol, reveal the influence that the King of Pop (who choreographed the show in collaboration with Travis Payne) has had on subsequent generations of performers.

Watching Jackson collaborate with concert director Kenny Ortega (the man behind the “High School Musical” movies, and the director of this documentary) and the rest of the crew reveals a human side of the performer that’s been hidden from the general public for decades. We see a talented singer-dancer fine-tuning an extravaganza, and in so doing we are reminded that, behind all the tabloid craziness and larger-than-life eccentricities, there was still an artist and a person.

The slickest parts of “This Is It” are the filmed sequences that were intended to be part of the stage show, ranging from a graveyard horror show for “Thriller” to the destruction of a rainforest set to “Heal the World.” (Less successful is the “Smooth Criminal” clip, which edits Jackson into black-and-white footage from film noir classics like “Gilda” and “In a Lonely Place”; seeing Jackson in the same frame as classic Hollywood faces like Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart only underscores the damage that was perpetrated upon Jackson’s visage over the years.)

Like the 1965 documentary “The Epic That Never Was,” about a movie version of “I, Claudius” that stopped production in mid-shoot, “This Is It” invites us to imagine a finished product that never came about. To remember Jackson’s singing voice at its finest, put his albums on; if you want to experience his breathtaking talent as a dancer and showman, in what would turn out to be the final weeks of his life, well, “This Is It.”

Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .