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When music superstar Michael Jackson died suddenly last June, he was preparing a series of concerts to herald his comeback after a decade away from live performances. Some 80 hours of video was shot during the weeks of rehearsals and the creative team working with Jackson has distilled them into a two-hour documentary: a tribute film to the man and his music that opened worldwide October 28 2009. Here's a look at Michael Jackson's This is It.
There is music …lots of music: some new pieces as well as some fresh takes on the global hits that made Michael Jackson the self-proclaimed 'king of pop.'
The film shows tantalizing bits of what was being prepared using a cast of 70, including musicians, dancers, acrobats and puppeteers, amid an elaborate stage set with giant video screens for pre-recorded 3D segments especially produced for the tour. In a rare glimpse behind the scenes, the rehearsal videos show Jackson working to achieve the kind of polished entertainment fans around the world had come to expect from his shows.
The stage show director was long-time Jackson collaborator Kenny Ortega, who went from dancer and choreographer to a successful career as a film director. So when the producers decided to turn the rehearsal video into a theatrical film, Ortega was the natural choice to direct it; but, still mourning the loss of his friend, he admits his first instinct was to turn down the offer.
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"I looked at this and I said 'no.' He died and a part of me has collapsed," Ortega says. "I'm shattered. Make a film? No way. But I promised I would look at the footage and offer an opinion as to whether I thought we had enough there to tell a story. When I saw it I realized that it was my responsibility …that the journey wasn't over for me and I had to pull it together real fast because there was no way I was going to let this footage go into the hands of someone who didn't understand what it was (and) where it came from. This was Michael and I and the team that we put together. How could I just turn my back on it?"
"The difficult part was that it was so fresh, so quick after (his death);" notes Ortega, "but that also served us because it was all there. We knew what the story was. We didn't set out to make a movie here, but having just come out of the concert experience with Michael, we knew were his heart was. We knew what the investment was for him. We knew what his purpose for going out at this time of his life was and we knew what his ideas were. That for me was the reason to make the film. So from day one we just focused, we kept Michael in the space with us and we thought about the fans and what the fans would need to take away from this film experience."
"From the time I started working with Michael in '93 as a dancer, he always documented the process. It was a tool for him, a reference tool," says Travis Payne, choreographer for the show's complex dance routines. Payne is a co-producer on the film. He explains that Jackson himself was the reason so much video of the rehearsals was available to them; but Payne is not sure how comfortable the entertainer would be with the rough, unfinished performances in the film.
"I think in the past Michael would not have wanted people to see that entire process because he didn't [allow it] before," Payne says. "But I think that he wanted so much to be great and amazing and perfect, and we would tell him 'you don't have to be perfect. We all love you. We're here to support you. We're your family. You don't have to be perfect. Just give us what you want to give us every day. We'll take that. It's enough. Just be Michael Jackson.' He allowed himself to relax into it a little more."
This Is It does not deal with any of the circumstances surrounding Jackson's death; nor does it go into the widely reported concerns about the grueling hours of rehearsal. Director Ortega says those issues were not relevant to the film.
"What I wanted to do here was to tell the story of what Michael had planned for the fans in the best way that I could with what I had available to me," Ortega says. "That's what I did. It wasn't about leaving things out to protect him, it was about telling a story and I think that when you see the film you realize that I allowed him to be vulnerable. I allowed him to be unguarded. I allowed him to go through a creative process like any person would go through. I think that the surprising and beautiful thing about the film is, in fact, we see Michael in that place where every artist ultimately has to be at the beginning before it is finished."
Michael Jackson's This Is It will be in theaters for only a few weeks, to be followed by DVD with many more hours of rehearsal performances.