Kenny Ortega, This Is It, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 111 minutes.

MICHAEL JACKSON died a long time ago, and it’s taken years for anyone to notice,” Hilton Als writes in a piercing posthumous assessment of the King of Pop in the August 13 edition of the New York Review of Books. The documentary This Is It (2009), assembled from 120 hours of rehearsal footage shot between March and June at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where Jackson was preparing for his planned run of fifty concerts in London, tries, for 111 minutes, to revive the recently deceased. But how do you resuscitate someone who was the walking dead for at least a decade?

Beamed into Manhattan’s Regal E-Walk multiplex on Forty-second Street (and to sixteen other cities around the globe) via live transmission from LA’s Nokia Theater, director Kenny Ortega, who had worked with Jackson on the singer’s last two world tours, for Dangerous (1992–93) and HIStory (1996–97), and who was to direct the London concerts, welcomed the audience to “this last sacred documentation of our leader and friend.” MJ as messiah is established in the documentary immediately, as moon-eyed dancers, filmed on April 15, often find themselves too overcome with emotion when speaking about working with Jackson to complete a sentence. “I’m from Australia . . .,” a butch beauty starts before breaking into sobs.

The deference that Ortega, best known as the choreographer and helmer of the High School Musical franchise, shows Jackson verges on toadyism: “I couldn’t hear you, Michael, sir,” Ortega says after Jackson complains about his earpiece during “I Want You Back.” “This is monumental—Michael’s back on the cherry picker!” the director squeals during a run-through for “Beat It.”

What kind of ruler was the King of Pop, our leader and friend? His moments of perfectionist pique—“I want it the way I wrote it, the way the audience hears it”—are delivered meekly, often followed by invocations of good vibes, offering “God bless you” as a benediction to cast and crew. “With the love, L-O-V-E,” he says after the “I Want You Back” earpiece incident. “I’m trying to conserve my voice; please try to understand,” Jackson pleads with a hint of passive aggression during the end of “I’ll Be There.” “Give me all your faith. Your endurance. I love you all. We’re a family. We’re all one. Love the planet,” MJ mildly implores during a hand-holding group huddle.

Of Jackson’s own endurance, the footage—which includes material from the night before Jackson died, at age fifty, on June 25—reveals a performer whose body can still defy gravity, whose joints swivel and lock with astounding precision, but who appears attached to forty years’ worth of hits in the most mechanical, halfhearted way. Granted, This Is It was compiled from material never meant for public viewing and functions merely as a harbinger for what might have been at the O2 arena in London, where Jackson’s concerts were scheduled to begin this past July and run through March 2010. MJ is exceptionally thin, though perhaps no more so than he is in 1991’s “Black or White” video, and his BMI appears about the same as that of The L Word’s Katherine Moennig, whom Jackson, in his final days, most reminded me of. (A group of fans calling themselves This Is Not It are protesting Ortega’s film, contending that it distorts Jackson’s health by not showing how sick and frail he really was.) His speech is occasionally slurred; here, the strongest connection is to Judy Garland, another monstrously talented entertainer since childhood who died too young. Als asserts that Jackson “die[d] in exile from his body.” The painfully lackluster moves MJ drifts through during a rehearsal for “Billie Jean” suggest that his spirit had been extinguished long before.

Melissa Anderson

This Is It opens worldwide October 28.