POSTED ON NOVEMBER 4, 2009:
Eyeing the Icons
Michael Jackson and Coco Chanel tributes show what could have--or should have--been
Got It. We’ll never know how the tour might have turned out, but Jackson was clearly far from the halfcrippled mess the media made him out to be. That adds a mournful undertone to This Is It because, even dialed back, he obviously had what it would have taken to pull off a killer live show.
Comprised primarily of rehearsal footage filmed in the weeks before Michael Jackson's death, This Is It will, no doubt, be a coveted swan song for the iconic singer/songwriter's fans--or most of them, at least.
Your level of enjoyment obviously rests on how much you like Jackson and his music but, for some, may also depend on their ability to ignore what a blatant cash-in the film is. I'm cynical enough to where opportunism doesn't really bother me, and as a result I had a pleasant enough time getting a behind-the-scenes look at the Herculean efforts being undertaken to mount The King of Pop's first major comeback in more than a decade.
I've tangentially enjoyed MJ's music since the days of the Jackson Five and, like damn near everyone else on the planet in 1983, I had a copy of Thriller. The man wrote some great pop. I was always more of a metal-head and gore-hound, so even then my interest in Thriller had as much to do with Eddie Van Halen's involvement, and the legendary music video for the title song, as anything else. From his earlier Motown sounds to the post-disco era Jackson, I've always had to cherry pick the songs that really connected with me. I only mention this so you know where I'm coming from.
The film opens with brief interviews of the back-up dancers who were selected for the tour, all of whom were on the verge of tears at the prospect of working with their idol (while making me wonder if these scenes had been shot after his death). From there the film is made up mostly of the rehearsals.
Performance-wise, it's definitely a warts-and-all situation. While the band sounds great, it's clear Jackson himself was holding back (he says as much) in order to save his voice for what would surely have been a grueling set of 50 shows meant to take place in London's O2 Arena.
The resulting performance is littered with some false notes and several stops-and-starts as Jackson gives directions to tweak last minute elements in some of the songs, some of which have entirely new arrangements. He's paying fierce attention to every detail of the show. While that makes This Is It far less the polished concert experience so rarely seen in theaters, it is still a fascinating window into MJ's creative process. And that's not to say there aren't some really enjoyable moments, either. Even when he's holding back, Jackson's trademark vocal abilities are hardly muted. In fact, considering the miles of tabloid hullabaloo about the state of his health, it was rather gratifying to see the man had not yet lost either his pipes or his moves. It's pretty rare that anyone comes back after a decade and does his or her best work.
We'll never know how the tour might have turned out, but Jackson was clearly far from the half-crippled mess the media made him out to be. That adds a mournful undertone to This Is It because, even dialed back, he obviously had what it would have taken to pull off a killer live show.
That footage is intercut with behind-the-scenes glimpses at other nuts-and-bolts elements of the concerts that would never be. The stage production was meant to be a mind-bogglingly, pyrotechnic-laden extravaganza, choreographed with clockwork precision and timed to interspatial videos broadcast on a giant screen from behind the stage.
Some of these videos are actually used as straight footage in the film. One particularly cool segment inserts Jackson into an old Bogart movie, a la Forrest Gump. Yet another is a 3-D update to the Thriller video, loaded with rotted zombies and CG-bats and spiders. While there are some making of elements cut into the videos, they really just seemed to underline director Kenny Ortega's (High School Musical) need to have something to cut to that wasn't the Spartan camera set up used to capture most of the live performances.
Still, it was interesting to see the mechanics of the massive production in progress, while Jackson confabulates with director Ortega to fine tune the choreography (he's also the dance coordinator) or works with his musicians to perfect every nuance of the set list.
If anything, I would like to have seen more of that. But This Is It was never meant to be a theatrical release (more on that later) and as a result it looks like the cinematic equivalent of DVD extras. Shooting on a few handheld cameras would have been fine, and Ortega melds the disparate footage ably, but the film rarely captures the sense of how big the show would really be; even resorting to a brief animatic to illustrate how a particular stunt involving a bulldozer would work. The overall visual presentation bore the marks of a hasty assembly.
But most of you will just be going to hear the music, I bet. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', Smooth Criminal and a lovely version of Human Nature are just a few of the songs performed during the films 112-minute run-time; and the band sounds top-notch. Stand-outs include back-up singer Judith Hill in a beautiful duet with Jackson on I Just Can't Stop Loving You. Her silky smooth tones were supported by such emotion that Jackson seemed taken aback.
Lead guitarist Orianthi Panagaris' smoking hot looks also extend to her fretwork, most notably on the solo in Beat It where, had my eyes been closed, I would have sworn it was Eddie Van Halen shredding away. Turns out she was playing alongside Steve Vai at age 16. It's easy to hear why.
Suffice to say the music of This Is It does not disappoint, though having an enthusiastic audience for the band to feed off of no doubt would have added to the excitement. That fact, oddly, seems to complement the theatrical setting. After all, you're not in a packed house of crazed fans, either. Here, on that technical level, the film rises to the occasion. It sounds great. I'm willing to bet most of you don't have 10,000-watt sound systems in your homes (and props if you do), so your best bet to hear this the way it was intended is to head to the theater. The thunderous aural assault, cranked up to 11, goes a long way to making it sound like you are right there in the arena.
This Is It is a conundrum. In the realm of great concert films it isn't. It's not imbued with the film craft of something like the Talking Heads masterpiece Stop Making Sense, nor is it really aiming for that. As a documentary it offers only a surface-level glimpse of its fallen star, perhaps leaving less flattering footage on the hard drive. But it's not trying to be that, either.
As document of his last moments on stage, for those who loved him and his music, it might seem like a bittersweet gift. Despite the opening text crawl describing it as such, Jackson's well-known perfectionism surely means this film wouldn't exist had he lived. This Is It is his unintended epitaph.
Coco Before Chanel
It hasn't been a good couple of weeks for filmed adaptations of the lives of iconic women in history. Last week Amelia monotonously underwhelmed with its paint by numbers construction and this week brings the staid, nearly lifeless Coco before Chanel.
Based on a novel by Edmonde Charles-Roux (adapted by writer/director Anne Fontaine) Coco before Chanel goes the opposite route of Amelia, examining Chanel's life before she became an internationally renowned fashion guru. Taught by nuns to sew in an orphanage in the late 19th Century, Coco Chanel (Audrey Tautou) lives a life of poverty and bas couture until she becomes old enough to join the cabaret. There she meets the wealthy yet unattractive horse breeder, Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), who invites her over for the weekend only to find that she won't leave. From there, Chanel begins a life-long climb up the ladder of privilege and respectability.
I would say more, but there is so little going on in Coco before Chanel that I could literally reveal the whole film with two more sentences.
Chanel became famous (and infamous) for what she did after the events depicted in this film, so what we have here are 105-minutes of impressionistically photographed tedium. Coco before Chanel makes Amelia feel like Die Hard. Had the film focused more on her life during the first 40 years of the 20th Century it would have made for a much more compelling story, though it would have likely made her even less likeable.
Flatly portrayed by Tautou, Chanel comes off as little more than a moody, passive aggressive gold digger who seems fine with having everything handed to her until she decides to take control of her own destiny.
Don't get me wrong, there are some flashes of brightness and warmth from Tautou, but it's like seeing brief glimpses of sun through furrowed clouds. Amélie this isn't. And while Tautou is beautiful, she is clearly not right to play Chanel in her 20's (yet another reason this film would have benefitted from setting it later in her life).
We never see the duality in Chanel that the film visually hints at. We never really come to learn what made Chanel so influential or understand what doors she opened for other women. We just see her lounging in bed, riding horses, going to parties and bitching about the hand she's been dealt. It's like making a movie about Jesus and only including the part where he gets nailed to a cross and dies--but in reverse.
If you walk in knowing nothing about Coco Chanel, what you see here won't compel you to learn more. You can make a movie about an unlikeable person (or a person you just don't like) that works, but Coco before Chanel's sluggish pace depicting mostly uneventful events does the audience no favors.
There are one or two bright spots, though. Playing Balsan, Benoît Poelvoorde gives the film a B-12 shot with his nuanced and lively performance. Balsan isn't that much more likeable than Chanel is, but Poelvoorde gives him layers and depth that Tautou was trying for but unable to deliver.
The film is also quite pretty, though pointing a camera at most parts of France does that. But the art direction and idyllic settings of pastoral 19th Century France glow with Renoir-like shot compositions that do pull you into rural mansion life. It feels tangible. Supporting players Marie Gillain and Alessandro Nivola (as Chanel's true love, Arthur Capel) are fine, if underwritten, though everyone seems to pop out like a primary color next to Tautou's dour Chanel.
Flawed in inception, Coco before Chanel is another missed opportunity to create an enlightening, entertaining and emotionally engaging portrait of a groundbreaking woman's influence on the course of history. If only they had focused on the second half of her life. The lovers; riches; intrigue. WWII and the Nazi occupation. Sleeping with a German spy. She almost went on trial for war crimes! All while irrevocably sculpting the world of fashion to her image. Sounds like an interesting movie doesn't it?
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