Michael Jackson had moved away from us.
With each passing year his musical hits grew more remote, his dazzling dance moves fading into the remoteness of iconography. "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" are to us now what "Hound Dog" was when they came out; the Moonwalk became the Charleston.
Instead, our memories of being entertained and moved were replaced with newer, more unpleasant ones: The allegations of sexually abusing children, the increasingly strange behavior, the withdrawal and reclusion.
Even the King of Pop's physical appearance -- garishly thin and wasted, ineluctably altered by surgeries and skin lightening -- became more and more ephemeral, as if he were gradually turning into a phantasm as his star dimmed.
Strangely, surprisingly, the concert movie "This Is It" brings him back to us. It's a bracing and thrilling celebration of Jackson's remarkable talent.
I admit I was skeptical of this film going in. It seemed like a cynical attempt to cash in on Jackson's legacy after his untimely death at age 50 just four months ago. Jackson was rehearsing for a 50-concert tour, his first in nearly a dozen years and reputed to be his last.
The footage that comprises the movie was never intended to be shown to audiences, except perhaps for outtakes incorporated into a slicker production to be shot during the actual concerts. What we're left with is not really a concert movie, but a document of a concert that never was.
Director Kenny Ortega weaves together shots of Jackson rehearsing, with segments built around individual songs. Some are shown in nearly finished form, with a troupe of highly choreographed dancers, lighting and costumes. Others were still at the conceptual stage, so the footage consists essentially of Jackson alone on the stage, singing and gyrating.
There's also some backstage material, including shots from some films that were being made specifically for the giant screen that enveloped the stage. Ortega uses these scenes to demonstrate how the finished concert would have looked. One, which intercuts old film stock to create a gun battle between Jackson and Humphrey Bogart, is visually delicious.
Less well integrated are interviews with musicians and dancers, who basically gush about how great it is to work with Michael Jackson. These are the only parts where the movie's commercial genesis is brought glaringly to the fore.
The heart and soul of the film is the songs, of course, with nearly all of his major hits presented, and a few lesser-known ones as well.
The most important thing that needs to be said about this rehearsal material is how incredibly vibrant and healthy Jackson appears. He had not lost a lick of his agility or grace, easily keeping up with dancers half his age. The only hint of mortality is the bandages that repeatedly appear on his hands.
As impressive as Jackson's dance moves are, his singing is even more amazing, especially when one considers that he often was withholding his full vocal power to preserve his voice. He occasionally can't help himself from letting go, though, such as a thrilling duet with a backup singer on "The Way You Make Me Feel."
"Thriller" gets a sumptuous update with zombie dancers busting amazing moves, and other hits such as "Human Nature," "Beat It" and many more are performed.
At the screening I went to, many audience members sang along with the hits, feet tapping and shoulders popping in rhythm. It was magical enough to almost make you forget that most of Jackson's biggest hits are at least 20 years old.
"This Is It" brings us back to Michael Jackson's heyday.