Nearly four years ago, audiences got their last look at Michael Jackson in the top-grossing concert film of all time, This Is It. Tens of millions worldwide saw a seemingly healthy and confident performer sing and glide across a rehearsal stage as he prepared for his ill-fated comeback tour.
Now, those same sessions are being replayed for a new audience: jurors in a case filed by Jackson’s mother, Katherine Jackson, claiming concert promoter AEG Live should be held liable for his untimely death in June 2009.
Through testimony and evidence, the panel has seen a very different picture of Jackson — one framed by descriptions such as “skeletal,” “lost,” absent from rehearsals and unable to perform songs that made him a superstar.
In a darkened courtroom, and in stark contrast, the jurors have also seen clips of the concert film — visibly captivated by Jackson’s smooth moves and easy vocals as he prepared for his This Is It tour in yet another indicator of the enduring allure of the so-called “King of Pop.”
AEG Live’s lawyers have used the film to point to the flashes of brilliance in Jackson’s final rehearsals as proof that its executives could not have known the singer would soon die.
But Katherine Jackson’s attorneys have played the footage juxtaposed to video of her son spinning and Moonwalking in younger years in an attempt to show that his skills were diminished and the film was selectively edited.
Once again last week, jurors were reminded of many of the dire descriptions of Jackson’s deteriorating health in the final weeks. An attorney for the singer’s mother presented snippets of testimony from five of Jacksons’ collaborators expressing concerns about his health, including one who openly worried that he might die. Some of the statements were also sent in emails to AEG Live executives in 2009.
“If we didn’t have these emails, we know what they’d be saying,” Katherine Jackson’s attorney Brian Panish said. “You can’t come in and change those now.”
“It is only the fair and accurate representation of what he was actually doing to prepare,” AEG Live defense attorney Marvin S. Putnam said of the film. “What we can’t know and we can’t provide any picture of is what Mr. Jackson was doing when he was not preparing for This Is It at rehearsal.”
“It wasn’t meant to be a day-by-day chronicle of Mr. Jackson’s life,” Putnam said, adding that “it doesn’t show someone who’s deteriorating.”
The footage that became the This Is It movie was never intended for the big screen and by its nature is a bit rough. Jackson’s outfits often change several times in one song because it is compiled from multiple rehearsals. There are few time elements in the movie, so rehearsals shot on the last night the singer was alive are shown alongside earlier rehearsals.
For instance, Jackson’s final rehearsed song was his environmental anthem “Earth Song,” which appears an hour and 20 minutes into the movie. The next song, “Billie Jean,” was performed weeks earlier, according to testimony in the trial.
This Is It was released in October 2009 for a two-week theatrical engagement, earning more than $260 million worldwide — far more than concert films by Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, or Madonna.
In the film, Jackson shows off many of the crisp dance moves that made him a superstar, but in the courtroom, his collaborators have detailed his missed rehearsals, his difficulty performing some of his signature moves, and occasional signs that Jackson was under the influence of medications.
Among their observations not reflected in the film:
– Choreographer Travis Payne went to Jackson’s home almost daily for rehearsals, but acknowledged that he couldn’t say how many times the singer often skipped the one-on-one sessions. Payne testified that Jackson was struggling to prepare for the show and had asked to use a teleprompter to help him remember lyrics to some of his songs.
– Nor did Jackson show up for rehearsals with the band and backup dancers. Director Kenny Ortega told jurors that Jackson missed numerous rehearsals in mid-June. When he arrived for a rehearsal session on June 19, 2009, Jackson was shivering, incoherent, and unable to rehearse. Ortega massaged Jackson’s feet and got him food, later describing the singer in an email to AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips as “like a lost boy.”
– Production manager John “Bugzee” Houghdahl wrote Phillips on June 19, “I have watched him deteriorate in front of my eyes over the last 8 weeks.”
– Emails sent by Phillips have led Panish to suggest that the footage shown in This Is It was selectively edited and that any clips showing Jackson was sick were in AEG’s control. After the singer’s death, Phillips sent an email to another AEG executive, Paul Gongaware, telling him, “Make sure we take out the shots of MJ in that red leather jacket at the soundstage where the mini-movies were being filmed. He looks way too (thin) and skeletal.”
Gongaware denied to jurors that any footage was taken out at Phillips’ request, and AEG Live’s attorneys showed a clip from the film in which Jackson is wearing his infamous red leather jacket while watching the filming of a 3-D mini-movie that would introduce “Thriller” during the concerts.
Lawyers for Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray, thought footage that became the This Is It film might help their defense of the doctor on an involuntary manslaughter charge, but their review of more than 100 hours of unseen footage didn’t yield anything useful to their case.
“Even on his bad days, he’s good,” Murray’s defense lawyer J. Michael Flanagan said at the time.
The testimony and evidence from the civil trial are unlikely to impact Jackson’s legacy, and may even spur some renewed interest in This Is It, said Robert Marich, the author of the book Marketing to Moviegoers.
“This makes him look more tragic and enigmatic,” he said.