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'Michael was complex': Ken Ehrlich discusses the Grammys' 3-D tribute to Michael Jackson

January 20, 2010 |  1:23 pm

With a Jan. 31 air date, the Grammy Awards face a challenge when it comes to paying tribute to the fallen King of Pop. Numerous award shows have already honored Michael Jackson, including the Grammys Grammy.Target.3DGlas#C34D11 themselves: R&B star Maxwell's tribute to Jackson was one of the highlights of the Grammys' nomination concert in early December.

Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich notes that the Grammys had been close to securing a Jackson performance the last couple years. In fact, a planned tribute to Jackson's "Thriller" was believed to be such a done deal that CBS even aired commercials teasing the event.

But in the wake of Jackson's death, Ehrlich wanted to avoid having other artists sing a medley of Jackson's most iconic songs. Instead, the Jan. 31 telecast will feature a 3-D-enhanced rendition of his environmentally aware orchestral ballad "Earth Song," originally featured on Jackson's 1995 album, "HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I." 

"To try and imitate him, to try and represent him, it just didn’t feel to me like it was something we should do with one of those songs that you just don’t ever necessarily want to see anybody but Michael doing," Ehrlich said in a Wednesday conference call with reporters. " ‘Beat It,’ ‘Billie Jean,’ or so many of the others. This felt to us like it was really a way of representing him. It’s like a tip of the hat. This song was so important to him."

In 2008, Ehrlich had hoped to stage a massive tribute to Jackson, commemorating the then-25th anniversary of "Thriller." Jackson's appearance was heavily rumored, and eventually promoted on CBS in the days leading up to the awards. Asked by The Times why it didn't happen, Ehrlich said, "Michael was complex."

"I made some annual calls," Ehrlich continued."There would be a Michael call, there would be a Prince call, sometimes there would be meetings. It was all about when he was ready or not ready to do something. The last couple years, you’re right, we did have meetings about possible performances. At one point, I actually think we had put together what I thought was a pretty exciting mash-up of a number of his hits that we were going to try and do. We had a meeting with him, he listened to it, and he did one of those, ‘Boy this is really terrific.’ He ultimately chose not to do it."

Ehrlich, who produced the July 7 memorial at Staples Center, said Jackson had promised to appear at the 2010 Grammy Awards. As The Times has previously noted, Ehrlich met with Jackson at one of his final rehearsals, at the time to discuss a Halloween special on CBS. That was when Ehrlich said he first glimpsed the "Earth Song" film.

Ehrlich has lined-up an army of stars from across multiple genres, tapping Céline Dion, Jennifer Hudson, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood and Usher to honor Jackson. But the now-typical award show mixing-and-matching of legends, "American Idol" vets and pop stars won't be the only component of the Grammys' tribute to Jackson.

The Grammys will air a segment of footage originally intended for Jackson's comeback concerts at the London O2 Arena that is now an extended outtake from the concert documentary "Michael Jackson's This Is It." The 3-D segment that will air on the Grammys was meant to be shown before Jackson performed "Earth Song," for which the original video is embedded above. It's a short film that spans the full length of the song, snippets of which were seen in the film "This Is It."

"It starts out with some beautiful images of the world and our environment, and Michael’s child-like love for animals and birds and dolphins," Ehrlich said, describing the clip. "It introduces a little girl, a beautiful little girl who at one point in the film basically goes to sleep, and when she wakes up -- she’s in a forest and it’s very pastoral -- and when she wakes up, all of a sudden it’s all changed and it’s bad. The environment is being affected and trees are being cut down.”

Unlike, say, the Grammy mash-up of Alicia Keys and Frank Sinatra, which featured footage of the living pop star singing with black and  white clips of the Chairman of the Board, Jackson will not be seen on the Grammys. Only his voice will be heard.

In terms of securing 3-D glasses, CBS has partnered with big-box retailer Target, which will exclusively distribute the free glasses. The Recording Academy passed along a rendering of the glasses, which is embedded above. Ehrlich said that glasses won't be required to enjoy the segment, and that those without them will see the full performance, sans 3-D imagery, without impairment. Glasses obtained for other televised 3-D events, Ehrlich said, should work for the Grammy broadcast. 

Ehrlich didn't reveal much in terms of other Grammy performances, noting only that Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga would each be joined by at least one other as-yet-unnamed artist in their performances. Ehrlich did, however, mention that there would be a segment to raise awareness for Haiti relief efforts. 

-- Todd Martens


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