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Is this what Michael Jackson would have wanted?

Until this week, the stand-out detail about the director Kenny Ortega was his habit of fining cast and crew a dollar for yawning on his sets. And any movie-goer who did not have parental responsibilities for keeping children entertained during school holidays might have concluded that, if Kenny introduced a similar yawn-box for his audience, he would soon be paying back most of his income from showbiz.

Ortega has specialised in anodyne entertainment: choreographing Dirty Dancing before directing all three of the High School Musical movies. But this maker of teen market crowd-pleasers has suddenly excited a howling mob by presiding over one of the most tendentious cinematic projects ever made.

This Is It is an attempted act of artistic resurrection: giving Michael Jackson the concert tour he never got to give by splicing together footage of him rehearsing under Ortega’s tutelage in various sessions, presumably including (the chronology of the footage is kept vague by arty fast-cutting) his final stage appearance before he suffered at his rented Los Angeles house what the LAPD are investigating as a possible act of manslaughter.

For much of its length, This Is It is extraordinarily boring — if Ortega were paying us per yawn, there would be urgent calls from his bank before a third of the piece had screened — but the first sight of it is spooky and appalling. Many viewers will feel a horror — which at least some members of Jackson’s family have echoed — that the Sony Corporation has not let even the obstacle of the singer’s death prevent him from going out on tour for a final pay-day.

When I interviewed Ortega for Radio 4’s Front Row, he had the baffled and battered air of, say, a champion flower-arranger who, holding another routine press conference to discuss the visual possibilities of poppies, faces a string of questions about whether he’s really a frontman for the opium business.

This Is It raises so many moral questions that there would be a case for papers handing it over to their religious affairs correspondents rather than their movie critics. And, as we worked through them, Ortega gave what seemed to me many careful and quietly anguished answers.

Did he have any qualms about repackaging the rehearsal footage in this way? “Once it was clear the film was going to be made”, Ortega was clear that he had to make it, implying that he agreed to steer a bandwagon placed on the road by Sony.

Even in the fragmented, carefully edited footage, Jackson looks fearfully frail (although, to my eyes, more engaged than I’d expected). So did Ortega ever feel during rehearsals that the singer simply wasn’t up to it? He had mentioned worries about “sleeping” and “eating” but we have to understand that Jackson was “happy at that weight”. From which we can conclude that he did have worries, although he then insists that he had “never for one moment envisaged the scenario” of Jackson dying before opening night.

And then the biggest concern of all: for Jackson’s family, his fans and even any neutral observer with a neutron of humanity: was a near-fatally fragile Jackson only trying to perform these shows under pressure from the huge network of debt and dependants he had created? On this, Ortega insists that Jackson, in the wilderness years around his successful defence of child abuse charges, was desperate to be involved in another great artistic spectacle.

So what do I finally think? The words “it’s what they would have wanted” are among the most dangerous in the English language, used daily in families far less famous than the Jacksons to justify acts of emotional and financial selfishness. It’s hard to believe that Michael Jackson — who was, for all his terrible weaknesses, an artistic perfectionist — would have wanted a global audience to see performances in which he seems most often to be saving his voice and body for a first night on which all will somehow be miraculously right.

But I also feel that Ortega — who, let’s face it, really doesn’t need either the money or the hostile questioning he must have known would come — took the view that, if it was going to be done, he owed it as a last service to Jackson to keep it as dull and distanced as he could. On a frame by frame basis, the film does not humiliate its subject. So there are elements of good faith here: it’s just that the whole project is such a very bad idea. –

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