Which is why his final gutsy comeback attempt ranks as one of the most tantalizing near-misses in pop culture history. The heartbreaking “what if” questions linger. What’s amazing is that he made it as far as he did. Chalk it up to his willpower, maddening determination and cursed pride.
Entertaining was all he had ever done until he became the best. Now he was going to get it all back—at any cost. Quite simply, Michael Jackson refused to lose. “I’m going to get them,” the embattled singer told longtime friend and musical collaborator Teddy Riley in late 2008 of his plans for a spectacular return. “I’m going to shock the world, just watch.”
“He was looking for a project to not just ‘Heal the World,’” Riley says, referring to his fluffy 1991 anti-poverty hit. “He wanted to kill the world’s hate. That was his plan.”
It began with a new edition of Thriller, in 2008, 25 years after its original release. Tracks from the best-selling album of all time were remixed by Kanye West, will.i.am and Akon. The next phase of the plan included a new album and a landmark series of gigs at London’s O2 arena to be called This Is It. The groundbreaking concerts would feature never-before-seen High-Def 3-D special effects, live animals, mechanical puppets and Michael performing all the classics, from “Billie Jean” to “Jam.”
“It was such a huge undertaking,” recalls choreographer Travis Payne of the intense preparation for the 50-show spectacle. “So I asked MJ, ‘Do you ever get nervous?’ And he goes, ‘No . . . this is what we do. You have to leave it all on the stage. If I get nervous, it radiates through the group. And then we’ll have a bunch of nervous soldiers and you’ll never win a war that way.’”
The war Jackson hoped to win was an all-out battle to redeem his legacy. But he never got the chance to witness his final victory. The uniquely talented entertainer died on June 25, 2009 in Los Angeles at the age of 50. Michael passed away from cardiac arrest, brought on by a lethal amount of the anesthetic propofol given to the chronic insomniac by his personal physician Dr. Conrad Murray. (At press time, Dr. Murray had pled not guilty to an involuntary manslaughter charge.)
“I’m going to get them. I’m going to shock the world, just watch.” Within a year of his untimely death, Michael’s prediction has come true—he’s sold more than 30 million albums while the music industry is struggling to survive dwindling record sales. This Is It, a film made of tour rehearsal footage, has grossed more than $250 million worldwide, a staggering figure for a concert documentary. And in typical bigger-is-better fashion, Michael’s estate signed the largest recording deal in history with Sony Music Entertainment in March. Worth an estimated $200 million, the contract covers 10 projects over the next seven years, which could include DVDs, video games and more than 60 as-yet-unreleased Michael Jackson tracks.
“Our mission first and foremost is to preserve and enhance the legacy of Michael and to take care of his mother Katherine and his kids,” explains Jackson’s longtime entertainment lawyer John Branca, the estate supervisor. The kids are Michael’s children Prince Michael, 13, Paris Michael Katherine, 12, and Prince “Blanket” Michael II, 8, who now stand to inherit the bulk of MJ’s estimated $500 million empire.