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'This Is It': Michael Jackson's last dance

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Michael Jackson couldn’t sleep. Whenever he tried to drift off, new ideas for his comeback concerts kept coming to him: Twenty-two different stage sets. A children’s choir. Aerial dancing. Eye-popping images projected onto the world’s largest 3-D screen. Elaborate David Copperfield-style illusions. With a 50-show engagement set for London’s O2 arena, he wanted to give his fans the ultimate Michael Jackson concert experience, a career-capping spectacle to end all spectacles. It was right there in the name: This Is It. But at age 50, Jackson hadn’t toured in more than a decade, and as he rehearsed the show at L.A.’s Staples Center, his collaborators sometimes worried that he was pushing himself too hard: not eating enough, not getting enough rest. ”Don’t worry,” Jackson told director Kenny 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.”

On June 25 the pieces were nearly all in place when Jackson’s sudden death brought the production — and, without overstatement, the entire world — to a stunned halt. It seemed Jackson’s ambitions for This Is It — to reinvigorate his career, rejuvenate his fan base, replenish his finances, and spread messages of peace, love, and ecological responsibility — would never be realized. But, as it happens, there was something left behind. Cameras had been rolling during those four months of rehearsals, recording the singer as he and his collaborators developed the show. The footage — some 120 hours — was raw and unpolished. It had been shot mainly for Jackson and his team’s personal use, to analyze and critique as they went along. Though some of it was considered potential backstage material for a later concert movie, most of it was never meant to be seen by the public. Suddenly this became the last existing documentation of one of history’s greatest entertainers at work.

After months of anticipation, the world will finally get a chance to see that footage when This Is It opens around the globe on Oct. 28. At a time when nearly everything that comes out of Hollywood seems to be a remake of something else, This Is It, which Sony Pictures has scheduled for a two-week theatrical engagement, is a movie without any real precedent, and, judging from advance ticket sales, it may become a new sort of pop culture phenomenon as well. Fans began lining up for tickets days before they went on sale on Sept. 27, and within the first 24 hours, hundreds of shows around the world were already sold out — without anyone knowing quite what This Is It even was. A concert movie? A documentary? ”It’s somewhere in between,” says Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, who’s leaving the door open to extending the film’s run. ”It’s a movie about rehearsing for a concert that never happened. It’s heartbreaking and inspiring all at the same time. You think, Jesus, he wanted this so bad. It gives you chills.”

This Is It will be embraced by Jackson’s fans as a validation of his tremendous artistry. Some will pore over it, like a sort of musical Zapruder film, for clues about what led to his demise. Inevitably, some will debate whether it’s been rushed into theaters too quickly, and for less-than-pure motives. And some will argue it’s merely a ghoulish curiosity. But even a rival filmmarketing executive marvels at the movie’s potential impact: ”When I saw the first television spot, I got all weepy. It’s going to make a gazillion dollars. People are going to see this movie to process Michael Jackson’s death, to grieve in the way they think he’d want them to grieve. Has there ever been anything like this? It’s Dead Man Moonwalking.”

On a movie screen in a building on the Sony lot, Michael Jackson stands alone at center stage, wearing dark sunglasses and a jacket with a jeweled lapel, and quietly begins his hit ”Human Nature.” Singing tentatively a cappella at first, he pops his shoulders, shuffles his feet, and points his fingers as he begins to sketch out the choreography for the song. ”You sound great, MJ,” musical director Michael Bearden says encouragingly. As the song continues, the footage cuts to other run-throughs. A full band kicks in. Jackson’s voice grows stronger, his movements crisper. Some of the footage is crystal clear; other shots are fuzzy and low-resolution. But throughout, we see how everything — Jackson’s vocals, the staging, the musical arrangement — is coming together.

Kenny Ortega, the director of both the concert and now the film This is It, sits outside the screening room, looking tired but satisfied after weeks of nonstop work. This is the first time he’s shown this footage to anyone in the press. Even Jackson’s family hasn’t seen the final cut yet. ”Some of them have seen some of it,” Ortega says. ”I want them to be able to see it privately together. I hope that they’ll be pleased with it.” (Through their representative, Jackson’s family declined to comment for this story.)

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