TORONTO — With This Is It, the feature film chronicling the final months of Michael Jackson’s life as he prepared for a series of comeback concerts, director Kenny Ortega appears primed for the biggest hit of his life.
Yet it’s a film he did not want to make.
“I expected to be in London, watching Michael open and hanging out with him and joining him in India when he took the tour there and making movies with him in the future,” the U.S. director and choreographer said during a promotional stop in Toronto.
“Suddenly, I was helping his family with a memorial, and trying to put all the pieces together.”
This Is It opens in select cities with midnight screenings late Tuesday before expanding to wide release on Wednesday for a two-week run.
The film covers Jackson’s rehearsals for a planned set of 50 sold-out shows at London’s O2 Arena, which were to begin last July 8.
Ortega, who also directed Jackson’s Dangerous and HIStory world tours in the 1990s, was at the helm of these shows too. And he firmly believed Jackson would succeed in his comeback bid.
“He was sounding great, and dancing great, and having a really fun time,” Ortega said.
“It appeared to us that he was destined to triumph. And we were all excited about that for him. We wanted that for him.
“And you know, we were all shattered when he didn’t show up.”
Jackson died at his rented Los Angeles mansion June 25 after his personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, administered the anesthetic propofol and two other sedatives to get the chronic insomniac to sleep, court documents state.
Ortega said he had no idea about the struggles Jackson was enduring, nor the substances he was using to help him sleep.
“I wasn’t aware of any of what has been suggested became his demise,” Ortega said. “Michael had bee put through a lot in his life and I know he suffered from it and I know it had its damaging effect on him, crippling. All of us saw that. We watched it. They put it all over the news.
“But at this stage of his life, Michael was focused on getting back out there and being in front of the fans, and sharing this with his kids. He was invigorated, he had a purpose, and this was nourishing.
“It was his idea to do it, and his invitation that put us all there. Michael Jackson at 50 years old was in charge and was doing what he wanted to do.”
And he was also documenting all of it. Following Jackson’s death, Sony plunked down US$60 million for the rights to the 120 hours of footage culled from Jackson’s rehearsal sessions.
They needed a director to bring it all together, and Ortega seemed a logical choice. But he hesitated.
“I just didn’t feel that I was emotionally capable of going through it,” said Ortega, who also directed the star-studded L.A. memorial that was held in Jackson’s honour and broadcast around the world.
“My first reaction was no, I can’t, I won’t be objective. I can’t, I’m going through too much, it hurts too much, I’m too close, it’s too soon. … But then, in the end, it was going to be made, and if I wasn’t going to do it, who was going to do it?
“It just became my responsibility, for better or for worse. I had to step up to the plate, as we have to sometimes in life.”
That meant pulling together a feature film in a matter of months to meet Sony’s deadline. Ortega admits the time constraints were trying — he says he and his team worked seven days a week, up to 15 hours a day — but ultimately says he had enough time to make the film he wanted.
He says the response so far from the select few who have seen it — members of Jackson’s family, close friends and some industry people — has been positive.
But a group of Jackson fans online have already launched a protest against the film, condemning it as an inaccurate depiction of Jackson’s last days.
A statement at This-Is-Not-It.com accuses filmmakers of glossing over the severity of Jackson’s condition in the film. The fan group behind the protest also alleges that those involved with the tour knew that Jackson was not fit for the shows, but pressed ahead anyway.
Ortega did acknowledge that some fans might avoid the film.
“I realized not everybody wanted this, but there were thousands of fans calling for it, expecting it and really demanding it,” he said.
“(They believed) that it was their right as his fans to know what this last theatrical work was about.”
And, for his part, Ortega certainly speaks highly of his friend.
“He was a kind soul, a generous human being — open-minded, inspired, fun, funny, you know,” he said. “He was fair. Unguarded, when he trusted you. Man, he laughed as hard and as loud and as deeply as anyone I’ve ever known. Like Peter Pan. It really was like that. It was guttural.
“I saw him fall out of a chair and kick his feet and bang his fist into the floor sometimes, he laughed so hard. He loved practical jokes, he loved disguising his voice and messing with you and making you try to figure out what weirdo you were on the phone talking to. He was real. …
“I guess the big thing for me, what I loved, Michael had such a love for what it was that he did. He was born in a trunk, he had been doing it since he was a baby, but he never lost the love of it. He loved what he did, and he was as good at it as anybody. So the combination of those two things is kind of unbeatable, isn’t it?”