estoestodo2 You’d think that “Wanna Be Startin Somethin” would be the ideal way to open a movie about Michael Jackson. In This Is It, though — patched together from four or five rehearsals for the 50-concert extravaganza which famously never took place — Jackson just sort of shuffles to it, stiffly, barely dancing, like a Frankenstein parody of Bill Cosby’s own parody of dancing. I wondered if I had wandered into a Kraftwerk concert film by mistake. That hip shake looked seriously Teutonic.

“Good God,” I thought to myself, licking my lips from a shoe-leather and cardboard sandwich gleaned from the Trocadero’s downstairs Subway sandwich stall. Had this all been a terrible mistake? Not just my decision to see what had become of MJ, but MJ’s own decision to find out the same thing. It turned out — not at all.

As the movie gradually reveals — though it could have been clearer — the rehearsal that “Wanna Be Starting Something” was taken from was an early one, when no choreography had been worked out. There are no backing dancers, no lighting routines, no nothin – just MJ trying to feel his way into the song again. And he looks all of his almost 50 years when he does it. Which makes the transformation of the later rehearsals so amazing: he’s loose and supple and enjoying himself; if not the match for his backup dancers in pure energy, he’s easily their equal with his timing and his moves. He is totally in his element, calling the shots with an unexpected confidence. He knows his stuff, and the musicians and dancers know he knows it.

Much more so than I was expecting, This Is It is not even that much about MJ. It’s about a show. I’ve never before seen a movie that gives you so much of what it takes to put together a modern, rockapalooza stadium gig with the hordes of backup singers, dancers, and techies required to make it all happen. I’m a sucker for that stuff and would have gladly watched an entire hour of MJ telling the band to drop the second verse, or play more behind the beat, and then another hour of the dancers working out how exactly to jump 20 feet in the air with their hydraulic trampolines. In a weird way it’s like a police procedural, or an episode of ER, or Pimp My Ride – you’re watching professionals at work, doing what they do best. It could have a been a TV series!

As far as the new visual stuff went — an abysmally reconceived video for Thriller; a sequence in which MJ is painstakingly CGI’d into a Humphrey Bogart movie; or indeed an Ewokian video for Earth Song in which a little girl plays with a flower in an Edenic paradise before being terrorized by a driverless front-end loader, Christine-style — it was pretty bad.

The music and the performances, however — at least, the stuff taken from the later rehearsals — were sublime. For me the standout is “The Way You Make Me Feel”, a much better tune than most people remember, and probably the last time MJ was considered a current pop star (the original video is forever conjoined in my mind with “Hazy Shade of Winter” by the Bangles and George Michael’s “Faith”). Here it’s given an extended, lazy intro punctuated with fingersnaps and complemented by a cityscape against which are silhouetted the backup dancers, West Side Story style, who gradually climb down from their steel girders and hideaways and help MJ reveal — via the time-honoured media of crotch-grabs and dry-humping the sidewalk — the extent of his feelings for the impossibly gorgeous and flirty object of his affections.

If you were actually at this concert, you’d barely register these anonymous co-stars. I saw Michael Jackson for his Victory Tour at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, which was at that time the largest arena east of the Mississippi River. He was a tiny maquette from my seat midway up the far end of the stadium. The Jumbotrons helped (as did a pair of binoculars), but understandably the focus was all on MJ – his moves, his sweat, his clenching and unclenching gloved hand. Presumably this new concert would be a similar experience.

This Is It gives you what my grandmother would call something more else — the personalities, passions and expertise of those session singers and dancers who despite their months of hard work are barely noticed, necessary filler for the main event. They joke around, applaud each other, shoot the shit. For each of them, this set of concerts is the peak of their careers. The ultimate pinnacle. Fifty shows at the Millenium Dome on stage with the greatest performer of his generation. And then they never got to do it.