Forthcoming in two anthologies: Black Performance Theory (tentative title), Thomas DeFrantz, Anita Gonzalez, editors: and in Taking It to the Bridge: Music as Performance, Richard Pettengill and Nicholas Cook, editors.
This essay will be available in print soon. In the meantime, here's the abstract summary:
I wrote this essay to investigate the phenomenological aspects of Columbia Pictures’ Michael Jackson’s This Is It, the 2009 Kenny Ortega-directed film posthumously assembled from raw video footage of Michael Jackson during his final rehearsals in Los Angeles. The commercially successful film was marketed to the public as a must-see revelation of the “authentic” Michael Jackson in the midst of pure creativity. That “authentic” portrait is only made possible because the filmmakers de-contextualize the ‘found’ rehearsal footage on which the film relies. We are offered a vision of the pop superstar totally free from, and absolved of, his infamously controversial baggage; Michael Jackson comes off as “under-determined” in the world of the film. This is It’s normalizing and revisionist rendering of Jackson is in some ways a revelation because the film returns all the focus to Jackson’s inestimable performance skills and therefore indirectly confronts widespread misconceptions about Jackson as an artist and auteur. The film’s conservative attempts to re-script and re-brand Jackson as ‘authentic,’ and therefore normal, ultimately fall short, largely because of Jackson’s performative excess. In ways that are both literal and meta-literal, Jackson emerges in the film as both paranormal and otherworldly. His ghostly on-screen presence compares to the post-mortem film work of Australian actor Heath Ledger. And the film - halfway caught between outsize blockbuster spectacle and mundane reality entertainment - ultimately provides meta-commentary on the phenomenological ‘problems’ of presence and finality. Through scenes of blissful joyous soul and funk performances, This Is It affirms the recalcitrant power of spirit: energetic good feeling between artists bent on getting together and sharing together.