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Seeing Michael Jackson Through Critical Eyes

I was invited to attend the premiere of "This Is It" Tuesday night at the Nokia Theater, where I was joined by a few thousand of my closest friends like Will Smith, Paula Abdul, four of Michael Jackson's brothers, and J-Lo (heard she was there, didn't see her). Needless to say, nearly everyone there was a die-hard Jackson fan.

I used to be.

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I went to see the movie out of curiosity more than anything else.

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I always liked The Jackson 5 better than The Osmond Brothers.

I bought "Off the Wall", "Thriller", and "Bad". Then I stopped.

Michael Jackson was changing.

As a reporter, I first started covering Jackson in 1993 as allegations surfaced about child molestation. Then there was his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, the whole thing with Debbie Rowe, his increasingly strange appearance, a criminal trial, and, finally, a tragic end.

So, unlike most people at the Nokia last night, I went to the movie with more critical eyes. There were some empty seats in the theater, which surprised me. The celebrities, for the most part, were not A-listers. But when the lights went down and director Kenny Ortega addressed the crowd, and the movie began, I have to admit, it was pretty electrifying. Ortega and his team did a lot with what little material they had. It looks as though they filmed perhaps five or six rehearsals with Jackson, yet I only noticed a few times where they repeated shots. Filmmakers filled out the 90 minutes with a lot of additional compelling material, like the dancer auditions. In fact, the movie is as much about the dancers, singers, musicians and crew for the would-be concert tour than it is about Michael Jackson. To hear their stories, to see their talent, gives the film a wonderful dimension. You also see all the special production touches Jackson and Ortega were planning for the concert—like a 3D graveyard scene to play on huge screens during "Thriller" which looks suspiciously like Disney's "The Haunted Mansion" (Ortega came from Disney ). There was another number where a young girl holds the Earth in her hands. I note that she's a young girl. There are no young boys in this movie, anywhere.

But mostly, there is Michael Jackson, always working, always wanting another take, always singing and dancing. At 50, he outdances artists less than half his age, and they stand in awe. He demands things his way, but does so kindly. There is a lot of humor in the movie as he and Ortega try to gently make their ideas known to each other. "I say this with love, L-O-V-E, love," Jackson says after making sure the crew knows exactly what he wants. When Jackson tests out a new cherry picker which will be used in "Beat It", he wants to start the music immediately and give the song a go. Ortega pleads with him to wait and just test the cherry picker "for safety's sake". It's a funny scene as Jackson rides the lift silently through the theater, and finally says "hello" to some crewmember on the ground. Jackson's speaking voice seems strained at times, which I attribute to his unique facial structure. But his singing voice is still there. And the dancing. The dancing. I saw no signs of someone who was on painkillers. How could you do that on drugs?

Of course, we don't know what reality was. This is nominally a "documentary", but editing can create all kinds of impressions. Did Jackson have that energy level at all times? Was he always so kind and engaged? I don't know, but even if the movie is only half accurate, Michael Jackson was going to put on one heck of a concert. I suspect fans will go back for repeat viewings, and I would not be surprised if Sony extends the film's two-week run.

Ok, time to lighten things up. In light of my thoughts on the power of editing, here are two funny examples of how a story can be retold in a completely new way, simply by re-editing the same material.

First, here's "Mary Poppins" as an evil monster.

Then there's "The Shining" as a romantic comedy.

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