It’s not often one sees the creative force behind “High School Musical” testify in an involuntary manslaughter case. But the litigation against Michael Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray, in the death of the pop superstar has brought Kenny Ortega to the witness stand.
Ortega -- said “High School Musical” force and the director of Jackson’s planned 02 arena shows and Sony Pictures' “Michael Jackson's This Is It” documentary that sprang from it -- was called to testify so he could offer his account of Jackson’s mental and physical well-being in the weeks and days leading up to the singer’s death on June 25, 2009.
In testimony on Tuesday, Ortega said that he observed Jackson as frail and not at all well in that period.
"My friend wasn't right," Ortega testified. "There was something going on that was deeply troubling me," he said of Jackson's appearance a week before his death.
Ortega further wrote in an email to concert promoters that "Today I was feeding [Jackson], wrapping him in blankets."
Ortega doubtless had good intentions in trying to shed as much light on Jackson’s death as possible. In so doing, however, the filmmaker may have raised a question about his own movie. “This Is It” is predicated on -- and indeed makes a strong case for -- the idea that the icon was present and healthy in rehearsals in the run-up to the shows, suggesting nothing troubling whatsoever.
In numerous “This Is It” scenes, we see Jackson not only performing in elaborate costumed numbers for the likes of songs such as “Smooth Criminal” but also offering a steady stream of feedback that reflects a man who’s anything but sick or checked out.
“You've got to let it simmer” he tells a keyboardist, with noticeable clarity and even poetry. He engages in a call-and-response solo with a young female guitarist that morphs from simple jam session to something more transcendent. And he stands behind monitors carefully scrutinizing set pieces, his keen eyes seeming to take in everything before him. None of it points to a man on the decline who would very soon need help feeding himself -- which, in light of the testimony, is enough to make one wonder if what we saw in the film was an incomplete or even misleading portrait.
Of course, it's possible that Jackson's decline was extremely rapid and that Ortega was describing what he observed after the moments seen in the film. But even if the periods are distinct -- and without an exact timetable, it's impossible to know -- it's still hard to square the upbeat tone of "This Is It" with the downbeat, even disturbing tone of Ortega's testimony. (We’ve sent an email to the director’s representative but have yet to hear back.)
All documentaries are selective; the notion that we’re seeing the subject with his guard fully down went by the boards decades ago. It's no more real than the idea that Jackson is actually the white-suited gangster from the “Criminal” piece. But “This Is It” was presented as a rare look at what was really going on behind the scenes. "Like you've never seen him before," Sony's tagline said. From Ortega's testimony, though, it's apparent there were a lot of things we'd never seen before that weren't anywhere near the film.
Photo: Michael Jackson in "This Is It." Credit: Sony Pictures.