Spike Lee’s documentary, “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall” airs February 5th on Showtime and you must not miss it. Spike’s gift to Michael is a complete rehabilitation as a musical genius pre “Thriller” and the later drift into madness.
This Michael Jackson is before chimps and Neverland and all the eccentricities that eventually consumed him. Frankly, after watching Spike’s movie, I am more convinced than ever that the combined successes of “Thriller” and “Bad” created a monster. It was too much for Michael Jackson to be the King of Pop. But that’s for another movie.
This movie tells the story quickly of the Jackson 5, but then explores how the group left Motown for Epic Records, and how Michael spun off as a solo act. Only two of his siblings, Marlon and Jackie, are interviewed (and they are very articulate and winning). There are interviews with Katherine and Joseph Jackson, archival footage of Sammy Davis Jr, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly.
Quincy Jones plays a huge part, of course, as producer of “Off the Wall,” the solo album that launched Michael’s second life. The whole second part of the film is devoted to the making of “Off the Wall” once Spike very smartly details its roots– Michael writing those last Jacksons hits like “Shake Your Body” and working with Gamble and Huff in Philadelphia.
The huge number of people interviewed includes Berry Gordy and Suzanne dePasse, to start. Stevie Wonder shows how he wrote “I Can’t Help It.” (I wish Gladys Knight had been included; she found the Jackson 5. Also missing is any reference to Frank DiLeo.) But then you’ve got all the people who worked with Michael like engineer Bruce Swedien, many of the musicians, plus lots of current stars like Questlove, John Legend and Pharrell.
The film is notable for its archival footage and interviews with Michael from the late 70s through just before “Thriller.” The plastic surgery is maybe just the nose. The skin color is still black, no sign of bleaching. Michael is clear-eyed and quite articulate himself about what he’s trying to do with his music and his career. He’s still a whole person attached to the world. The mania is yet to come.
There are moments that will blow you away. One is Karen Langford, one of Michael’s lawyers, reading a handwritten 1979 note from Michael declaring his intention to become a new artist named “MJ” with no Jackson 5 past intent on ruling the world. Another is seeing Randy Jackson, Michael’s brother who later become embroiled in his finances and career, rocking out as a major percussionist.
But you do see Michael, toward the end, telling interviewer Sylvia Chase that he had no guilt about his leaving his brothers behind. He is quite definite that he’s going to move forward to fulfill what he sees as his destiny. He’s clearly a genius, and way beyond — as he says — “I Want You Back.” And that’s where the trouble began.
But that’s for another film. This film undoes years of damage, and presents Michael Jackson as a brilliant young entertainer in the making. Great work.