Michael Jackson’s This Is It begins its two-week run in theaters around the world Wednesday, and PEOPLE’s movie and music critics were among the first to see it. Here’s their take on what may be the late King of Pop’s final offering to his fans:
PEOPLE Movie Critic Leah Rozen:
To see Michael Jackson in rehearsal in Michael Jackson’s This Is It is to appreciate the hours of hard work and dedication behind his artistry. But anyone hoping for an up-close-and-personal glimpse of the man behind the man in the mirror will be disappointed.
When Jackson, 50, died on June 25, he had only hours earlier returned home from rehearsing in Los Angeles for an international concert tour which he was about to start. This Is It, directed by longtime Jackson collaborator Kenny Ortega (High School Musical), is a compilation of footage shot of Jackson between March and his death while he was rehearsing for the tour.
RELATED: This Is a Hit! Michael Jackson Movie Draws Star-Studded Crowd
This Is It is a hybrid, half documentary and half concert film – but not quite either. As a documentary, it merely shows process, with little by way of explanation or exploration. As a concert film, we’re offered the practice sessions rather than the finished product. What does come through is that Jackson worked hard, really hard. He looks a tad thin, but otherwise appears healthy and energetic. We see him sweat through difficult dance routines, reach again and again for high notes, and go through complicated production numbers repeatedly until he nails them. He clearly had a vision, and he gently coaxes his musicians and dancers to make it into a reality.
What we don’t see is Jackson letting his hair down (literally, it’s almost always in a pony tail). We never catch him goofing off, blowing off steam or telling stories about his three children. Oh, sure, at times he prattles on about the power of love and his reverence for the environment, but these come off as pop pieties. The real Michael Jackson, at least as seen here, is all business. Ardent fans will be happy to gaze at their idol in action; moviegoers hoping to understand more fully who Jackson was and what made him tick, besides performing, won’t find answers here.
RELATED: Elizabeth Taylor Gives Michael Jackson Film a Standing Ovation
PEOPLE Music Critic Chuck Arnold:
At one point during Michael Jackson’s This Is It, the King of Pop seems to be apologizing for his less-than-thrilling vocal performance. “I’m trying to conserve my throat, so understand,” he says at the end of a Jackson 5 medley. Of course, Jackson – returning to the stage at the age of 50 – had every reason to preserve his voice and energy while rehearsing for a string of 50 This Is It concerts that were to have taken place at London’s O2 Arena between July 2009 and March 2010. And to be fair, this behind-the-scenes footage was hardly meant to serve as a finished concert film.
But not going full out with his singing or his dancing, simply going through the motions at times, Jackson appears like a shadow of his former self. Sometimes it is even difficult to tell how much singing he is actually doing, while his moves lack that old snap, crackle and pop. Still, there are flashes of the brilliance that he might have been capable of in a full production, in front of a real, live audience. He brings a soulful vulnerability to his performance of “Human Nature” that is one of the film’s most moving moments, and the slow, simmering intro he painstakingly hammers out for “The Way You Make Me Feel” puts a sexy spin on the tune.
Clearly, he hadn’t lost his knack for creating a pop spectacle, although one has to question a set list that doesn’t include anything from Off the Wall. In the end, though, it’s difficult to say how much of “it” Jackson still had after watching this movie.
• To check out PEOPLE’s exclusive photos from This is It, click here.