Michael Jackson's final days on the big screen

Michael Jackson's final days on the big screen

memorable association Michael Jackson with Kenny Ortega, the director of ‘This Is It’.

When the news about Michael Jackson arrived, Kenny Ortega couldn’t believe it. It was the afternoon of June 25, and Ortega, the director of Jackson’s planned run of “This Is It” concerts, was at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, where the show was in its final rehearsals. One of the promoters had called to say that Jackson was dead.

“I made him repeat himself a number of times,” Ortega said in a telephone interview this week, still wrenching over the memory. “I hung up the phone and had my assistant call him back and I said, ‘Tell me something that no one else would know other than us,’ and he told me again, Michael had died. I thought it had to be a rumour. There was some crazy media thing going on here.”

Millions around the world felt the same shock, but for Ortega it was especially puzzling. Jackson had been readying himself for what were to have been 50 comeback shows in London, and despite being very thin, he seemed to be in good health. The night before he died — from drugs including propofol, a powerful anesthetic that he had been taking as a sleeping aid — he had been in rehearsal, nimble and powerful as ever, Ortega said.
Despite four months of lurid coverage in the news media over Jackson’s final days and his death at age 50, it is the image of a physically vigorous and mentally focused Michael Jackson that Sony Pictures and the Jackson estate are eager to convey with ‘This Is It’, a new film opening around the world for a two-week run. Drawn from 120 hours of rehearsal footage — for which Sony paid $60 million — the film, directed by Ortega, shows Jackson as healthy, clear-headed and capable, according to a number of people who have seen it.

“Was he slight? Yes. Was he frail? At times,” Ortega said. “But we had a very strong and excited, happy and determined Michael. He wanted to do this more than anything he’s ever wanted to do, and he was involved in every aspect of this project. He was there, he was invested, and he wanted to do this. That’s the truth. It really is.”

Advance booking
Some viewers may remain sceptical, but plenty of fans have rushed to buy tickets in advance. The film will be playing on about 3,000 screens in the US, and more than 1,600 show times have already sold out since tickets went on sale on Sept 27.
The film’s biggest success, however, might come on the international market, where Jackson’s reputation has historically been less damaged by tabloid rumours and by his 2005 trial for child molestation, in which he was acquitted. Reflecting Jackson’s status as a global superstar, the film is opening in about 18,000 theatres around the world, including 2,400 in China. “I’m not sure if that’s a record, but it’s more than we’ve ever had,” said Jeff Blake, Sony’s chairman for worldwide marketing and distribution, about the screenings in China.

Since the film is a cross between a documentary and a concert film, its box-office performance is hard to predict. Blake said only that Sony hoped it would be “the biggest concert film ever released,” comparing it to “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour” last year, which grossed $65 million in the US and another $5 million abroad. (Ortega was the stage director for that tour, and a producer of the movie.) Box-office tracking companies expect that in its first five days in the US it will make about $40 million to $50 million.

Yet there may be obstacles to ‘This Is It’ becoming a full blockbuster. Audience-tracking companies report that the film’s potential audience is split between a core of Jackson fans — the most devoted demographic is black women over 30 — and a large number of others who express no interest at all.

Sony executives have said the two-week run could be extended if demand is strong enough. Blake said Sony is not advertising the film as heavily as it normally would a new release, relying instead on word of mouth and continued loyalty to Jackson. For record sales, at least, the hunger for Jackson product has been remarkable. Since his death Jackson has sold 5.5 million albums and more than 9 million downloads of individual tracks, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and the demand has remained relatively steady.

But the filmmakers said they are also aware of the danger of appearing to exploit Jackson’s memory. When plans for the film were announced in August, it was to include a career retrospective and interviews with members of the Jackson circle, but Ortega said he scrapped that idea quickly, deciding to stick to footage directly related to the show.
“I don’t want anyone to say that any of this was manipulated,”  Ortega said. “This is honest, raw, unguarded, right up until the day he died.”

His decision put even greater pressure on the already Herculean task of editing the footage down to 111 minutes in time for a late-October release. That was made possible by the fact that most of the rehearsals had been shot in high-definition video, which does not require the lengthy chemical processing of film. Still, the job turned into a blur of 14-hour days and 7-day work weeks, with multiple editors sorting through the footage, said Randy Phillips, a producer of the film and chief executive of AEG Live, which was promoting the London concerts.

“We did in six weeks what usually takes nine months,” Phillips said. It was gruelling, Ortega said, but appropriate for a project meant to honour a man he described as a passionate workaholic. Early in the production Jackson, Ortega and Travis Payne, the show’s choreographer, made a pact to monitor one another’s health, Payne said. But that became impossible to enforce on Jackson, who frequently gave up sleep to work on the show, from grand concepts to the tiniest detail. “He even designed the ticket,” Payne said.

“The show we create here has to have people leaving and not being able to turn it off,” he recalled Jackson saying. “They shouldn’t be able to go to sleep. They have to see the sun come up and still be talking about it.”