The SmarK DVD Rant: All Singing, All Dancing!

So being that you’re reading this on the Internet, you were probably swamped with memorial messages from Generation X slackers about how they had the red jacket in elementary school and grew up listening to Thriller and everything else. I almost posted something very similar on my own blog but then read 100 others and decided against it. So let me share my Michael Jackson childhood memory: For whatever reason, my grade 9 Social Studies teacher decided to show us Moonwalker in class one day and the video included for "Smooth Criminal" was so awesome that I convinced my dad to rent the tape so I could watch the whole thing and not just the 50 minutes or so that class time allotted. And it wasn’t that I was really into Michael Jackson at that point in my life, as I was shifting from the pop music that I was forced to listen to when I had no choice in the matter, over to the hair metal that would define my high school music tastes. But regardless, the visuals for "Smooth Criminal" and "Leave Me Alone" were so jaw-dropping that I had to watch them in full to appreciate them.

Anyway, that brings me to This Is It, the posthumous sort-of concert film released last year, and although I’m VERY over Michael Jackson as an artist past, say, "Black or White", this was the kind of fascinating glimpse behind the curtain that you just don’t see very much of. Yeah, we see the rehearsed rehearsal footage a lot, but never some of the truer emotions of the performer while trying to craft a comeback performance of a lifetime. Michael was going to do an amazing 50 concerts from the O2 Arena in London, and this footage is just a glimpse into what we would have seen from him. And instead of the obsessed prima donna that stories describe him as, what we instead see is a focused genius who gives precise instructions to the people creating the show, always in a respectful manner. Little moments like his micromanagement of the music contrast with big moments like the 3D presentation of "Thriller", and it’s a wonderful mix of the mundane and the fantastic. Although he’s saving his voice for the main concerts, even the rehearsal versions of songs like "Wanna Be Starting Something" or "Earth Song" show the kind of vocal power that a supposedly burned-out and ruined Jackson could still deliver. In fact, that’s the main thing that struck me while watching this movie, that even after all the controversy and drug addictions, here was someone who could still go up on stage and perform with the best, and I think that’s mostly the message that he would have wanted to come out of the movie.

My favorite moment by far, however, is his performance of "Billie Jean", as you watch him retake control of his art form in the span of one song while an audience of dancers and technicians goes crazy like a group of little kids. I think that’s the best thing about the movie, how joyous it is about the whole thing. This could have been a depressing funeral dirge about a washed up performer on his last legs who didn’t quite make it to the big comeback, and instead it’s a message of hope that shows that the music was truly the most important thing and overshadowed all the other crap surrounding him. Say what you will about Michael the person, but Michael the performer is captured here at his best and it’s a must-see for casual and hardcore fans alike. Highly recommended.

Another equally joyous glimpse into making music (albeit a totally glimpse) comes in the form of Glee: Volume One. This is kind of an unusual situation in terms of the DVD release, because the show has been on hiatus since before Christmas due to the horrendously long lead time that production of the show requires. So instead of waiting until the season is over, Fox has decided to release the first half of the season, titled The Road To Sectionals, as a DVD set to tide fans over. Glee is actually a very interesting show for other reasons in Canada, as it’s a mid-level hit in the US but it’s a smash up here that routinely breaks the top 5. More importantly, the songs from the show dominate iTunes and the soundtracks sell huge numbers. It’s also become one of my favorite shows. It has the kind of seemingly effortless humor that is actually incredibly hard work to pull off properly, featuring a cast of broad cartoon characters (The Gay Guy! The Black Chick! The Jock! The Cheerleader! The Diva!) humanized by strong performances. It’s kind of a mix of the wacky humor of Scrubs, with whip-pan reaction shots and cutaway gags, with the silly plots of High School Musical. But however entertaining the high school parody aspect might be, it would all be for nothing if the music didn’t hang together, and there are some seriously awesome performances on this show.

Broadway singer Leah Michelle in particular carries the show, both within the context of the show and as an actress, and the creators are incredibly smart about clearing rights and choosing songs that make their point better than any dialogue could. When glee club teacher Will is singing a medley of "Don’t Stand So Close to Me" and "Young Girl" to his crushing student, it’s a very on-the-nose moment that gets turned upside-down by his target taking it exactly the wrong way. There’s a lot of that kind of stuff here, in fact, which is what makes it such a funny and engaging show. Of course, it’s not for everyone. Some of the hackneyed stuff gets REALLY hackneyed, like Will’s wife Terri and her impossibly convoluted and desperate sitcom plot to fake a pregnancy. Or the increasingly silly obstacles that keep Will and Emma from being together throughout the 13 episodes here. But despite those minor points, this is a show that will hook you from the moment that "Don’t Stop Believing" gets turned into a choir showstopper, unless you’re a particularly bitter and cynical person. Although speaking of bitter and cynical, I am somewhat bothered by this release in general, because the original show order was 13 episodes and they planned this DVD set to come out after the season finale. Then the show suddenly become a cash cow and now Fox has announced that the FULL season, including the final 9 episodes, will be released at the conclusion of the season. So basically this set is for people with $30 to burn and no access to Hulu. In other words, Canadians, I guess. So big recommendation on this end for the show, but I’d recommend saving your money for the actual DVD set later this year.

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