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'This Is It' shows different side of Jackson

Chris Lee

HOLLYWOOD — Short of someone inventing Smell-O-Vision before today's global rollout of the feature documentary "Michael Jackson's This Is It," fans will never get to know one of the most visceral aspects of working with the King of Pop.

"He had this amazing fragrance," said Mekia Cox, one of 11 backup dancers who worked with Jackson between April and June on "This Is It," his series of 50 sold-out concerts scheduled to start taking place at London's O2 Arena over the summer. The shows would have marked the superstar's return to performing after a 12-year touring absence.

Dancer, Daniel Celebre, referred to Jackson's singular musk as "the love potion," recalling its ability to trigger an almost Pavlovian response in people downwind. "No matter what you're doing, as soon as you smell that smell, boom! You have to get more focused," Celebre recalled. "Because he needs to know we're having that love. And throwing the love around."

It's not uncommon for people who worked with Jackson in his final months to speak about the entertainer in emotionally overheated terms. Several close collaborators on what was being touted as Jackson's final tour — a concert extravaganza that could have resurrected his finances, re-established his cultural relevancy and spread messages of global interconnectivity, love and environmentalism — seem to have gotten swept up in his grandiose vision. It's one that would have involved elaborate aerial dance numbers, the world's largest three-dimensional LCD screen, pyrotechnic illusions, 12 original short films and even the presence of a bulldozer and a children's choir onstage.

With the release of "Michael Jackson's This Is It" this week for a limited two-week theatrical engagement, his fans and doubters alike can see a nearly actualized version of that vision for themselves. To hear it from people who worked on "This Is It," the film will provide new insight into the private Jackson that few outside his inner circle ever saw.

"Michael was a new Michael," said "This Is It" concert director Kenny Ortega, who also directed the film, which wasn't screened for critics in time for opening-day reviews. "He was 12 years a dad, a businessman, an entertainer's entertainer. That wonderful, innocent part of Michael was ever present, but there was another Michael there with more worldly concerns. He had deeper reasons for wanting to do this than I've ever seen for him to want to do anything else before."

Consisting of digital video footage shot in rehearsals during the weeks before the production moved to London for final run-throughs, the movie also will throw Jackson's physical and mental bearing into stark relief — at a time when many people are still struggling to understand the circumstances surrounding his death. Jackson, 50, died on June 25, after taking the painkiller Lidocaine.

Some people who worked with the entertainer daily, however, insist there were no signs of drug dependence.

"He was on a whole new level," said backup dancer Dres Reid. "When you saw Mike, it was a different Michael. He had a swagger about him."

Ortega directed the singer's "HIStory" and "Dangerous" tours in the 1990s and is the force behind the "High School Musical" franchise and the "Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour." The director had been in talks with Jackson for more than two years about mounting some kind of performance. Yet Jackson had held out for a "substantial reason" to return to performing, Ortega said.

In March, Jackson called Ortega with news that he had signed to mount a series of concerts with AEG Live.

"He started saying, 'Kenny, my kids are so fascinated with what I've been doing my whole life, they're like super fans. So I want to share with my children now that they're old enough to appreciate it and I'm still young enough to do it,' " Ortega recalled.

The superstar intended his concerts as payback to fans and a platform to broadcast his concerns. "The messages in my songs, the ones I wrote 10 years ago, are more meaningful today," Ortega quoted Jackson as saying.

Although the pop icon was about $400 million in debt heading into "This Is It," Ortega insists their conversations never broached Jackson's financial predicament. Nor, despite Jackson's long absence from the world's stages, did the word "comeback" factor into their discussions.

"One time, I said to Michael, 'You're going to get your crown back. I can't wait,' " Ortega said. "Michael just giggled at me. 'God bless you, Kenny. You're so funny.' He just didn't think that way."

"Michael Jackson's This Is It" will showcase a dimension of the performer that falls well outside the prevailing images of one of the most photographed men of the past half-century. It will show Jackson as the boss, a perfectionist and creative visionary who was personally invested in the smallest details of his show.

"If he was in the middle of a dance number and something wasn't right, he'd say, 'Stop!' Everything would come to a stop," Ortega said. "And he'd say, 'Don't do that! Wait for me. Watch me.' And remind people that this wasn't an automatic production. You don't just push buttons. You watch Michael.

"The movie is dedicated to Michael's fans and his children," said Ortega. "But he's so alive and present in this movie, when we were in the editing room, there were times I'd forgotten he was no longer with us. ... He's so big, so engaging. He draws you in. And I think there is a fascination that will go beyond the fans."

Rating: PG. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Theaters: PG. 112 min. Alamo Ritz, Alamo Lake Creek, Barton Creek, Cinemark Southpark Meadows, Tinseltown South, Millennium, Lakeline, Westgate, Gateway, Cinemark Cedar Park, Cinemark Galleria, Cinemark Round Rock, Tinseltown Pflugerville, Georgetown, Marble Falls, Starplex.