Though he consented to have them filmed, [artist id="1102"]Michael Jackson[/artist] never intended for the world to see the sweat and blood he put into the four months of rehearsals for his planned comeback shows in London. But, with just two weeks to go before "Michael Jackson's This Is It" opens in theaters, and sell-outs piling up across the country in anticipation of the movie chronicling the pop star's final musical moments, this weeks' Entertainment Weekly cover story looks at the scramble to make the movie.
In a scene similar to the rush to buy tickets for the This Is It 50-show series at the O2 arena in London earlier this year, which sold out despite fans even knowing what to expect from the concerts, tens of thousands of Jackson devotees have been snapping up tickets for the movie without word of what exactly it will contain. Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures, which won an intense four-studio bidding war for the movie with a $60 million offer, said it's "somewhere in between" a concert movie and a documentary, with behind-the-scenes footage of Jackson rehearsing for the London shows.
"It's a movie about rehearsing for a concert that never happened," she said about the film, which opens on October 28 and will only play for two weeks. "It's heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. It gives you chills." Pascal bid on the movie after the studio executives were shown a three-and-a-half-hour cut of the more than 100 hours of raw high-definition footage shot during rehearsals for the comeback bid that was scuttled when Jackson died in June at age 50.
The movie tells the story of how Jackson's ambitions for his first major series of shows in more than a decade were in keeping with his larger-than-life persona, including a desire to re-create one of the world's largest waterfalls, Southern Africa's Victoria Falls, live onstage.
"I was ready to jump off the balcony of my office," said Randy Phillips, president of AEG Live, the show's promoter. As the budget soared past $24 million, Phillips told the magazine he met with Jackson and longtime choreographer — and the film's director — Kenny Ortega, in an attempt to rein in Jackson's ambitions. "We went and met with Michael, and Kenny said, 'Michael, you've got to stop. We've got an incredible show, we don't need any more vignettes.' Michael said, 'But Kenny, God channels this through me at night. I can't sleep because I'm so super-charged.' Kenny said, 'But Michael, we have to finish. Can't God take a vacation?' Without missing a beat, Michael said, 'You don't understand — if I'm not there to receive these ideas, God might give them to Prince.' "
The latter is an example not only of the decades-long rivalry Jackson had with Prince, but also of what Ortega and others involved in the production said was his seemingly endless drive to create the biggest spectacle possible for his fans. Despite health problems and what has emerged as an allegedly crippling addiction to prescription pain medicine, Jackson was working so hard to get the show into shape that some of his collaborators feared that the fragile singer wasn't getting enough rest or food.
"Don't worry," Jackson reportedly told Ortega. "Just put the people all crushed up against the stage. They're my fuel. They're my food. Their love will get me to the end." But, on June 25, just 10 hours after finishing a rehearsal, Jackson died of what the coroner has called acute propofol intoxication, succumbing to a lethal dose of the surgical anesthetic and several other sedatives. After four months of rehearsals, his death cut short Jackson's ambition to revive his long moribund career, charge up his fans (not to mention his troubled finances) and spread his message of peace, love and ecological responsibility, according to the EW story.
"Over the last few years, Michael would say, 'Let's find something to do,' " Ortega said. "But he turned down a lot. He turned down an invitation to do a Vegas production. He said, 'It has to be important. We can't do something just because we can.' I'd never heard him talk like that before. This time around, he wanted to do it for deeper reasons, more mature reasons." Jackson told Phillips he was eager to do the shows because after more than a decade of raising his three young children he thought they were old enough to appreciate his artistry and he felt he was still young enough to pull it off.
Despite the concerns over his health and age, choreographer Travis Payne said some of the young dancers handpicked by Jackson had trouble keeping up with the pop icon. "I was always handing him Boost drinks and meal-replacement things," said Payne, who felt that Jackson looked very thin. "We all encouraged him to eat as much as he could. But at the same time, I understand: When you eat a lot and then you dance, it hurts. It was all for his art, I think."