EXCLUSIVE: Antoine Fuqua is set to direct Michael, a Lionsgate drama telling the complex life story of the iconic singer Michael Jackson. A script is in by John Logan, and the film will be produced by Graham King, who turned the Freddie Mercury Queen story into the blockbuster Oscar Best Picture-nominated Bohemian Rhapsody. GK Films will produce alongside the co-executors of Jackson’s estate, John Branca and John McClain.
Turning Mercury’s complicated rise, fall and triumphant comeback into a film that won Best Actor for Rami Malek might have been an easier task than the moonwalking over landmines that will have to be done with Jackson’s story. Anyone who has seen the job that Fuqua did on the Will Smith-starrer Emancipation might come away believing he hit a high-water mark as a filmmaker because of his unflinching telling of an often brutal story of the escaped enslaved man Joseph.
This has long been a passion project for King and Logan, who teamed on the Oscar-nominated Martin Scorsese-directed Howard Hughes film The Aviator and his race to innovate before his mental illness and germophobic obsessions overtook him. Sources tell us that the film will undoubtedly make the most of Jackson’s musical accomplishments and re-creation of seminal career highlights beginning with the days he fronted The Jackson 5 as a child to his hitmaking work as the biggest musical star in the world as an adult. But it will also deal squarely with the pedophile accusations that dogged his later years up to his death in 2009 at age 50, from cardiac arrest caused by a cocktail of sedatives.
Things are moving fast on Michael. Fuqua is currently finishing The Equalizer 3 with Denzel Washington in Italy, and then he will turn his attention to this one. Production will begin later this year, and we’ve heard that Fuqua will draft his Emancipation and Equalizer 3 cinematographer Robert Richardson to be by his side.
The hope is that Michael will be a global juggernaut like Bohemian Rhapsody, which grossed over $900 million worldwide and created a new appetite for the music of Queen. Lionsgate has world rights here but will seek an offshore partner, and we’ve heard Sony is squarely in the mix. That studio turned into a hit the 2009 docu This is It, comprised of footage of Jackson rehearsing for a series of London concerts when he died.
Jackson’s emergence as King of Pop was filled with unprecedented achievement, including being really the first Black singer to crack the regular rotation of videos on MTV; his introduction of the moonwalk while performing “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever TV special in 1983; the incredible production values of the videos for “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” and other songs; and setting all kinds of records for sales and accolades.
On the other side of the coin, Jackson grew up bullied by his father Joe, the domineering Jackson 5 manager who drove his kids hard as they emerged from Gary, Indiana to become pop sensations as children, anchored by Michael’s golden voice. Michael Jackson bettered his career as he grew to adulthood, but this was accompanied by odd behavior that included sleepovers of young male children at his Neverland Ranch. Long dismissed as some kind of Peter Pan syndrome, that habit took a more sinister connotation when some of the boys claimed they had been molested, with a litany of lawsuits. There was also the plastic surgery, which transformed his face dramatically. We’ve heard theories that Jackson’s motivation might have been a wish not to see a resemblance to his father when he looked in the mirror, but certainly some of this came after he suffered damage when he was set ablaze in a pyrotechnic malfunction during the filming of a Pepsi commercial in 1984 that required reconstructive scalp surgeries and was his introduction to painkillers.
Just as the recent Whitney Houston film I Wanna Dance With Somebody and the Baz Luhrmann-directed Elvis (the latter of which leaned into the singer’s co-dependent relationship with greedy, parasitic manager Colonel Tom Parker), the drama will come from balancing the sides of Jackson’s life and please his fans, as well as standing up and not seeming like a whitewash. We’ve heard the film might start later in his life, and then look back on the upbringing that forged his incredible talent and work ethic, along with the damage it inflicted that ultimately makes Jackson a tragic musical figure.
“Antoine is a perceptive and powerful filmmaker, and we feel very fortunate that he has chosen Michael as his next project. His visionary storytelling skills and commitment to his craft will make Michael an unforgettable film,” said Joe Drake, chair of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group.
Said King: “Antoine’s films provide personal perspectives of larger-than-life characters that continuously captivate global audiences. I’m confident that Antoine will make an exceptional and compelling film that will both celebrate and give profound new insights into the life of the King of Pop.”
Fuqua, who early in his career directed videos with the likes of Prince, Lil’ Wayne, Toni Braxton and Stevie Wonder before his film breakthrough on Training Day, will get to lean back in as he created the King of Pop’s most iconic stage and performance moments.
“The first films of my career were music videos, and I still feel that combining film and music are a deep part of who I am,” said Fuqua. “For me, there is no artist with the power, the charisma, and the sheer musical genius of Michael Jackson. I was influenced to make music videos by watching his work – the first Black artist to play in heavy rotation on MTV. His music and those images are part of my worldview, and the chance to tell his story on the screen alongside his music was irresistible.”
Fuqua is repped by LBI Entertainment and Johnson Shapiro Slewett & Kole.
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