'This Is It' a fitting swan song

Imax screening of the doc hits all the right notes

"Take it from the top of 'Beat It,' " Michael Jackson says as his new cherry-picker lifts him over an empty Nokia Theater. Crowds of fans only make brief appearances in a film that is about a Michael Jackson most people did not know. Mostly, there is a stage -- at times embellished by dancers or pyrotechnics, while the film itself serves as a vehicle for explicating what was, in many ways, a lifelong performance.

Director Kenny Ortega's "This Is It" is a riveting look at the creation of Jackson's eponymous never-to-be-seen show. Composed of footage from rehearsals, interviews, music video clips and behind-the-scenes footage, "This is It" is a display of the composite parts that created the perfomer that was Michael Jackson.

Jackson is shown as involved in every aspect of the concert's production: He watches intently as dancers from around the world vie for the opportunity to work with him; he coaches his musicians through his music's timing; he consults with Ortega as dancers are multiplied on a green screen; and there is plenty of footage of Jackson himself -- dancing, singing, messing up and taking it from the top. Though his persona had vulcanized over the years to withstand attacks around his eccentricities and legal troubles, the film's ability to humanize a larger-than-life figure makes his recent death all the more tragic, while celebrating his countless contributions to popular culture.

Ortega's film showcases much of the Jackson known to the world. Scale is incomprehensible in Jackson's world: Preparations for the staging of "Thriller" echo Jackson's first visualization of that song 25 years earlier, only grander and more ghoulish. For that and many other scenes, the film is advantaged by theater viewing; the master may only be practicing, but for him, practice is perfect -- or certainly of a higher caliber than most could hope to emulate.

For that and so much more, Jackson will not soon be forgotten. In a theater full of twenty- and thirtysomethings, for whom there has not been -- until recently -- a world without Michael Jackson, the all-consuming view of the Imax experience gave its audience a taste of what the real concert might have been like. Like his life, it would have been a hell of a show. But, in all of its fascinating brilliance, "This Is It" offers something distinctly more real: a talented man at work, uncluttered by the trappings of fame and showmanship, who will never be seen again.