Tuesday, November 03, 2009

This Is It.

Sorry for the long absence, I've been away and busy with work. But that hasn't prevented me from watching This Is It three times in three days! Yes, so the long-awaited time has come, and we finally get to see MJ behind-the-scenes, hard at work preparing for the concerts.

The movie opened worldwide on 28th October, but was only released in Singapore on the 29th. I assume it's because of the time difference that led to us having the movie one day late. Nevertheless, Sony Pictures held a series of gala premieres at various theatres islandwide, and I attended the one at Cathay Cineleisure.

Watching it for the first time, I went in with some expectations - Would it be sad? Would I cry? Would MJ sing live? Would MJ moonwalk? Would it be as good as ten years ago? As a result, I was worrying too much to really enjoy it.

The first thing I noticed was how thin MJ was, especially in the opening number, Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', as he was wearing skinny jeans. His clothes were mostly quite slim cut and they made him even slimmer. I particularly loved the pointy shoulder pads jacket and the shimmering gold pants.

Even though he was slim, he looked strong and healthy. He was obviously holding back and going through the motions just to get a feel of the moves, but you could see that once the arena is filled with 20,000 screaming fans, MJ would have no problem going all out and executing the moves like he did 20 years ago.

He certainly didn't look like he was about to die, so I wouldn't say that Kenny Ortega and team should have noticed and intervened before it was too late. That leads to the logical conclusion that if MJ was healthy, strong and far from being on the brink of death, he must have been murdered then. It's a strong proposition, but I would not like to discuss that here or now.

The other thing I noticed was how great MJ sounded live. I was very disappointed that he lip-synched a lot of the numbers during the HIStory tour, so I was really hoping that he would sing live this time, especially if This Is It is going to be watched by so many million people around the world, much more than what the original 50 concerts would have been watched by. So it was with great, great relief to find that MJ was singing live again. And boy did he sound good live.

Some of the numbers sounded close to the studio recordings, but I'm inclined to believe they were sung live. It could be due to the fact that the sound was mixed and cut and pasted from different rehearsals/performances of the song, so there are some parts where the mouth didn't really correspond to the vocals. But overall, it was a very good editing job.

To me, the best part was hearing MJ's voice again. We haven't had much new music since Invincible, so this is like 2 hours of new MJ vocals. I always felt that singing is MJ's most under-rated quality, so this was a good time for people to discover how good a vocalist MJ really is. There's a lot of technique involved in singing in different styles and projecting the voice and dancing, and MJ was fantastic at that.

I was also very happy with how good the music sounded. The sound recording was superb, top notch. You know how live music always doesn't sound as good as the albums, but this was all live, and it sounded really great.

It was also great that they tweaked the musical arrangements a little, for example on Jam, making it funkier and more updated. They also changed the some of the cues and added interludes, for example, the Threatened musical interlude at the end of Thriller. This makes the concert fresh and not just a lazy rehash of the past tours.

And of course, there's also the short films. The 3D Thriller clip, the extended Smooth Criminal sequence where MJ shot footage to be integrated into old films, the Earth Song mini movie, the They Don't Care About Us army - they're all fantastic and look professionally shot, not some low budget filler clips. You can really see how MJ was creatively flourishing and having grand visions for these concerts.

Then there were the sets. The Thriller graveyard set, the scaffolding for The Way You Make Me Feel, the bulldozer at the end of Earth Song (the one shown in the movie was an animation but we can visualise how it will look like), they're all very elaborate and enhance the experience.

MJ really is a visionary and when he said he wanted to "take people to places they haven't been before", he wasn't kidding. These have got to be the most ambitious and forward-looking concerts at this point in time. When he said that he couldn't sleep because God kept channeling him ideas at night, and if he wasn't there to receive there because God might give them to Prince, you know how serious he was. He really did put in everything for this and there is no way he wasn't ready to perform.

A lot of my friends have seen the movie and they all SMS-ed me after that, telling me how amazing it was, how they will miss MJ's talent, how they're converted and have now become fans, how genius MJ was and so on.

Some fans are protesting and saying that This Is Not It, and the film doesn't show MJ when he was falling ill and getting skinnier by the day. We can't tell whether this is true because there's no linear timeline, and we don't know how many scenes from the movie were from the earlier or later rehearsals. But I would say I'm just glad that this movie exists, and it does provide closure for a fan like me. I'm happy knowing that MJ died doing what he loved best - creating and performing on stage.

I'm also happy that the movie showed a professional side of MJ that most non-fans don't know. I've read stories of how professional MJ is in the studio, how he takes hours to warm up just to put 5 minutes of vocals on tape, how he writes and re-writes just to make it perfect. But to most other people, they only know the scandal-ridden side of him, or the stage persona when he performed live or in the music videos.

This movie showed them that MJ is a human being with real emotions - the part where he was "complaining" about the earpiece being too loud was particularly awkward to watch - he is a perfectionist who demands things to be done just the way he envisioned it (the keyboard rehearsal scene during The Way You Make Me Feel), and his politeness and kind nature (giving orders "with love, L-O-V-E").

Some reviews said that it would have been "a helluva concert", and I agree. This Is It is so much grander in scale and vision than any tour MJ had done, and much bigger than anything anyone is doing right now, even U2. My initial regret was that we didn't get to see at least one full concert before MJ died, but this movie helped a lot. We still don't get to see MJ in the costumes, maybe they'll include it in the DVD, if there ever were photographs of the fitting.

So since the movie has been released last Wednesday, it has earned US$101 million worldwide. The US domestic figure was smaller than expected (US$32.5 million), but it was always going to be a bigger hit overseas, where MJ's fanbase is much bigger and loyal. So while it looks unlikely to top my US$600 million prediction, it still looks to gross at least half of that. And my prediction about Sony Pictures extending its run beyond the 2 weeks has come true - it will now be in cinemas for a few more weeks at least.

As for the soundtrack, it is not going to break the 2.4 million first week sales currently held by NSYNC, as I predicted, because instead of a true soundtrack to the movie with new live vocals, it is simply mostly a rehash of a greatest hits compilation. The album merely arranges the songs in the way they appear in the movie, and throwing in one "new" song (the title track), three demos from the Thriller album, and the spoken poem Planet Earth.

The Number Ones compilation is the biggest selling album in the US this year (and also Top Ten in many other countries), so you can't fault the fans for being lukewarm to this album. Nevertheless, it is still expected to top the US charts with around 300,000 copies sold, giving MJ his sixth solo #1 album. In the UK, the album debuted at just #3.

In Singapore, there's a jewelcase 1CD version being sold at 7-11 stores islandwide, in addition to the normal 2CD version. This 1CD version carries a retail price of $13.90 compared to the normal one (around $25), but it doesn't contain the second disc of demos and the poem, so there's really not much of a selling point.

On the second disc, the Beat It demo is really good and it makes the album worth it. It's done acapella and you can hear all the harmonies on the track. Another demonstration of how good MJ can sing.

So This Is It. Well, not really. The DVD will be out in January and it's been reported that Kenny Ortega will add two to three hours of bonus material and rehearsals onto the disc. Give me all 100 hours of footage, I don't mind. I want to see the costumes and more behind-the-scenes stuff, like how MJ worked with the music director to come up with the new arrangements. I also want to see the new sequences in full, with 3D specs if possible. And more footage of MJ rehearsing with the dancers. There's so much more to show.

The initial excitement has gone and there will be a lull till January. MJ will still be honoured at these upcoming music awards shows:

- American Music Awards (22 Nov): nominated for 5 awards including Artist Of The Year
- Soul Train Awards (29 Nov): Entertainer Of The Year

The MTV EMAs are taking place this week (5 Nov), who knows they might just do something to honour MJ again? And not forgetting the Grammy Awards, which is bound to highlight MJ again. After all, he won a record-breaking 8 Grammys in 1984.

So there's still plenty of love for MJ. Let's hope This Is It continues to do well, and many more people are exposed to MJ's genius. R.I.P. Michael.



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