EXCLUSIVE: Jackson Estate Moves to Block Release of Documentary About King of Pop’s Last Photo Shoots

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An unreleased documentary detailing photo shoots Michael Jackson did with Ebony/Jet Magazine and L’Uomo Vogue in the fall of 2007 is certain to please the late pop star’s fans – IF they ever get to see it.

The documentary opens with intimate footage of photographer Bruce Weber – the man in charge of taking Jackson’s picture for the L’Uomo Vogue feature – talking to his assistants about where they were when they first heard the Thriller album.

The photo shoots featuring in the documentary were organised by Jackson’s manager at the time, Raymone Bain, to commemorate Thriller‘s 25th anniversary.

“I want you to take it from the perspective of Mr. Weber, so you’re getting the making of the whole thing from his perspective,” Jackson instructs the film crew as he prepares to be photographed by Weber.

The documentary takes you through the process of pulling off a photo shoot with the world’s most iconic yet elusive entertainer – from booking the shoot, to getting Jackson there, to the makeup and styling process, and ultimately getting the shots required.

The film includes a number of stunning close-up shots of Jackson – both having his makeup done, and in action during the shoots.

The pop star looks healthy and vibrant as his photo is taken.

He can be seen striking poses and taking direction from those on set. At times he seems completely swept up in the adrenalin of being the ‘star’ of the show, busting out aggressive dance moves, punching the air powerfully, and ripping the backdrop to pieces with his bare hands.

Rushka Bergman, a celebrity stylist who had the task of picking clothes for the Vogue shoot, seems to have a cute little crush on the Jackson.

“I think that Michael Jackson was very sexy,” she tells the camera.

“I think that any time I put clothes on him, he looked better than any supermodel.”

In the footage, Jackson makes a special effort to shake the hand of every single photographer, assistant, makeup artist, lighting person, magazine representative and venue staff member on set – something that impressed his personal assistant, Michael Amir Williams, and Ebony/Jet editor in chief, Harriette Cole.

“What I loved the most about working with Michael Jackson is how kind he was to everyone,” recalls Cole.

“He was gracious to the elevator operator, the guard and the executives in the museum. He made sure to thank each person who was in ear shot when the shoot was over. He was generous and kind. Did some people feel intimidated by him? I don’t know if that’s the right word. More, I think some people were mesmerised. Some were pinching themselves wondering if they actually were in the presence of the King of Pop.”

The photo shoots took place in New York in September 2007 – L’Uomo Vogue on the 15th and Ebony/Jet on the 24th.

“Michael wanted to be photographed in an artistic setting and the Brooklyn Museum gladly accommodated us all,” recalled Harriette Cole at the time of the shoots. “We shot in the midst of ancient and contemporary history, and it was powerful to be in that space.”

“We worked with celebrity fashion stylist Phillip Bloch to develop concepts for wardrobe and then he and his team went shopping. We really wanted him to look elegant and timeless on the cover. We found a number of looks that would achieve that and presented them to Michael. He ultimately chose what he would be happy to wear, which turned out to be far more outfits than we had time to shoot.”

“Michael Jackson was the perfect fit for everything we put on him,” added Cole.

“He’s got the body that any woman or man would die for! At 49 years old, he [had] a slim dancer’s body … It was a lot of fun to work with someone who looks great in clothes, who knows how to move his body and who understands the camera. It was magic!”

“For a man nearly 50, he was still incredibly limber,” said Ebony/Jet Magazine’s Bryan Monroe of Jackson. 

“He showed off a few of his classic moves during the photo shoot – the leg twist/kick move in particular … He’s still got it.”

Unfortunately for Jackson’s fans – and Noval Williams Films (the company that acquired the rights to the unreleased footage) – the documentary’s initially planned June 25, 2014 release was blocked by lawyers for the pop star’s estate.

The footage was originally offered to The Estate of Michael Jackson in 2011 by a third party who filmed the source materials. That would have cost the Estate $1.25 million and afforded them the only known professional footage of Jackson from the final years of his life.

But rather, the Estate opted against purchasing the footage and, according to Novel Williams Films, never claimed in writing to the then-owner any ownership interest in the footage.

Following the Estate’s decision to pass up the footage, Novel Williams Films struck a deal with the third party for the rights in 2013 and proceeded to put together the documentary – Michael Jackson: The Last Photo Shoots.

However, when agreements were recently made for the documentary to be broadcast on Brazilian television, lawyers stepped in and claimed that the footage was private in nature and owned by the Estate.

“The makers of the documentary are attempting to exploit footage and photographs of Michael Jackson, which we believe are owned by his Estate,” said Estate attorney Howard Weitzman in a recent statement.

“The documentary contains footage of Michael during private moments that he never agreed could be publicly and commercially exploited without his consent and/or involvement. Michael never authorised or approved the use of this material in the film.”

Many fans were left in a state of disbelief that Weitzman would make the above comments considering that every single release the Estate has authorised since the superstar’s death has consisted of private materials ‘that he never agreed could be publicly and commercially exploited without his consent and/or involvement’ – including the This Is It film comprising Jackson’s private rehearsal footage, and the Michael, Bad 25 and Xscape albums, which include unpublished songs Jackson never authorised for release.

Noval Williams Films has since filed suit against Jackson’s estate and is asking the court for a declaration that they haven’t infringed any copyrights and that the Estate has no valid claims.

“As a record producer and composer, I have been greatly influenced by Michael’s music and his message of love to the world,” responded Craig Williams – writer and director of the documentary. 

“While it is terribly unfortunate that litigation with the estate is required in order for us to share our film with Michael’s fans, I am confident that we will be able to resolve this situation and Michael’s fans will soon be able to see our wonderful and positive film.”

The issue remains unresolved.

Damien Shields is the author of the book Michael Jackson: Songs & Stories From The Vault examining the King of Pop’s creative process, and the producer of the podcast The Genesis of Thriller which takes you inside the recording studio as Jackson and his team create the biggest selling album in music history.

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