In the film “This Is It,” Michael Jackson is shown as agile and energetic as ever, on the cusp of possibly the greatest comeback in music history.
“We’re all here because of him,” director Kenny Ortega said in the documentary, between images of Jackson lithely floating across the stage and giving commands about how the show is to be run. “May that continue, with him leading the way.”
But a starkly different portrait of Jackson emerged in the six-week criminal trial that ended this month, showing a national audience glimpses of a troubled artist beset by insomnia and anxiety, a series of missed rehearsals and a director mulling the possibility of “pulling the plug.”
The courtroom drama, the final note of which will be sounded with Dr. Conrad Murray’s sentencing Tuesday, cast a new light on a question that was peripheral to the criminal case but will be a key part of how the last chapter of Jackson’s story is written. Would his comeback attempt have landed him squarely back in the spotlight after a decade-long absence from the stage and years marred by criminal allegations? Or would he have faltered, possibly losing every last asset to his name and failing to become relevant once more?
On the witness stand, Ortega was far less upbeat than he was in the documentary about the lead-up to the concerts. He testified that with less than a month to go before the first show, Jackson was missing from an entire week of rehearsals. It was at a stage when the highly technical production involving 3D technology and magic illusions was being pulled together, shortly before the crew moved into the final venue: London’s O2 Arena.
“It became this continued absence,” Ortega recalled.
When Jackson showed up, what Ortega saw worried him. The singer was barely eating and appeared to be losing weight. Then there was the evening of June 18, 2009, when Jackson was shivering and rambling, leading Ortega to worry the star may be “unable to rise to the occasion due to real emotional stuff.”
“My friend wasn’t right, he wasn’t well. There was something going on that was troubling me,” the director said on the witness stand. “He was chilled and he appeared lost, a little incoherent.”
The stakes were higher than ever for the King of Pop, who was drowning in debt and who had most recently made headlines not for his music but for damaging allegations of child molestation. The concerts, if successful, could have been the start of a career rebirth, with talk of a world tour, new albums and feature-length movies.
To industry observers, the revelations about the weeks leading up to the London concerts came as a surprise.
“What a train wreck,” said Jim Guerinot, manager of acts including No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails and Offspring, who followed the trial. Back in 2009, Guerinot said he had high expectations for the concerts, knowing Jackson’s reputation for perfection.
“It sounded like it was going to be a phenomenal return,” Guerinot said. “Hearing what we hear now, I doubt they would’ve ever made it out the door had he not overdosed.”
Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of the live music trade publication Pollstar, said an artist’s attendance at rehearsal is crucial to an event of such magnitude, even if Jackson had his song and dance routines down pat.
“A show like that is keyed off his performance,” he said. “There are 50, 100 people who are all taking the cues off of what Michael does onstage.”
Some of the portrayals of Jackson that emerged in trial were far from the confident, sure-footed artist shown in the documentary. A longtime doctor of Jackson’s, Allen Metzger, testified that the singer came to him desperate for a way to sleep because he was “fearful” about his upcoming shows.
“His fear was that this was a big obligation,” Metzger recalled, saying Jackson realized that the number of concerts, which were to be documented by Guinness World Records, was a “huge ordeal.” “I think he believed he was up to the task but fearful about his nutritional state and being healthy,” the doctor testified.
The question of whether Jackson could have done the tour will probably be heatedly litigated in civil court, where the pop star’s family is accusing concert promoter AEG of putting excessive pressure on a physically unsound star and driving him to his death, and a London insurer is contending the company hid from them Jackson’s true medical condition.
Pieces of evidence from the days leading up to Jackson’s death offered a sense of the concern and frustration those around the singer felt about how preparations were going. Jurors, and the nation, heard the voice of Jackson’s then-manager, Frank DiLeo, in a message left for Murray: “I think you need to get a blood test on him. We’ve got to see what he’s doing.”
Also presented as evidence at trial was a 2 a.m. email Ortega wrote less than a week before Jackson’s death. Jackson was “terribly frightened it’s all going to go away,” Ortega wrote in a message addressed to the man who had the final say, AEG Live executive Randy Phillips. “He asked me repeatedly tonight if I was going to leave him. He was practically begging for my confidence. It broke my heart. He was like a lost boy.”
At the time of the email, three weeks before opening night, Ortega sounded less than certain about whether the show could go on. “There still may be a chance he can rise to the occasion if we get him the help he needs,” he wrote. That email, according to testimony, led to an emergency meeting at Jackson’s Holmby Hills mansion about the star’s readiness for the stage.
With an AEG lawyer in court, Phillips testified that he “can’t speculate” on whether it would have ever gotten to the point where the concerts would have to be canceled. Though conceding that if the star had failed to perform, he ultimately would have been on the hook for production costs, Phillips insisted: “No one on our end was ever contemplating pulling the plug.”
Jackson’s biographer, J. Randy Taraborrelli, said he won’t be writing that last chapter on the singer’s life just yet. Each side at trial had its interest in presenting the information it did, and it’s far from the complete picture of what was going on in his last days, he said.
“Even in death, the enigmatic nature of Michael Jackson survives. We’re still looking at threadbare clues as to what he was like and what his life was like,” he said.
Taraborrelli said Jackson had struggled with insomnia for decades, but the singer may have grown less and less able to recover from sleepless nights at his age. Whether he ultimately would have returned to the stage with the same vigor and raw talent his millions of fans were expecting, he said, is anybody’s guess.
“I think he would’ve pulled it together,” he said. “We can’t know for sure, we can never know for sure.”