TV Review: Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall (Sundance)

TV Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall (Sundance)
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PLOT: Director Spike Lee charts Michael Jackson’s initial success as a solo artist, with his breakout smash hit album, ‘Off the Wall.’

REVIEW: Who would have thought that director Spike Lee would become the definitive film-chronicler of the life and career of Michael Jackson? Best known for hard-hitting fare, Lee eschews this style to make a documentary that’s pure pop - a fact that’s appropriate given that MJ was indeed “The King of Pop.”

This is actually Lee’s second Michael Jackson documentary, with his BAD25 having played at TIFF a few years ago. Rumor has it this is the second in a planned MJ trilogy, with Jackson’s “Thriller” the next album to get documentary treatment. Lee’s Jackson fandom seems authentic, and as in BAD25, anyone looking for controversy should look elsewhere. This is a celebration of the music - nothing more, nothing less.

It’s interesting that following BAD25 Lee turned his attention to ‘Off the Wall’. While a staggering success, it’s been overshadowed by Jackson’s later efforts, which still rank among the best selling albums of all-time. Maybe it’s the lack of familiarity contemporary audiences have with Jackson’s time in-between the days of The Jackson 5 and ‘Off the Wall’ that encouraged him to take this approach. The result is a fascinating glimpse into the pop machine that was Michael Jackson, with the image presented here being of a man fully confident in his own abilities and the fact that one day he’d be the biggest star on the planet.

Like in BAD25, ‘Off the Wall’ gets the track-by-track treatment, but only in the second half. The first hour of MICHAEL JACKSON’S JOURNEY FROM MOTOWN TO OFF THE WALL centers around Jackson’s departure from Motown in his teens, when him and most of his brothers (except Jermaine) broke off and formed The Jacksons after they were legally prevented from continuing with the Jackson 5 name. It’s revealed that at the time the band was struggling in the charts, with the management at their new label not sure if the group would ever be able to win back the fans that abandoned them. After a few mediocre albums, the group bounced back with the hugely successful ‘Destiny’ album, anchored by the back-to-back funk/disco hits ‘Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground’ and ‘Blame it on the Boogie.’

From here, MJ gets hired to play the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s THE WIZ, where he meets Quincy Jones who encourages Michael to finally branch out to amazing effect. Lee’s assembled a great lineup of interviews, including THE WIZ co-writer Joel Schumacher and producer Rob Cohen, along with contemporaries like David Byrne, to Jackson acolytes Questlove and The Weekend and even Lee himself in one memorable bit where he remembers scalping Broadway tickets to THE WIZ.

One thing that’s certain to come out of MICHAEL JACKSON’S JOURNEY FROM MOTOWN TO OFF THE WALL is a new appreciation of the album. While more disco-tinged than his later albums, the case is proven that the album holds up as well as anything in MJ’s catalog, with ‘Don’t Stop Till’ You Get Enough’ remaining one of his definitive songs. The stories are really interesting, particularly when it gets to the ballad ‘She’s Out of My Life’, with the songwriter revealing that it was originally intended from Frank Sinatra, only for Quincy Jones to ask for the writer’s permission to sit on it until he could find the right artist for it. It’s shown how Jackson’s emotional performances of the song became one of the things that defined his early solo career, with Lee having fun cutting back-and-forth from Jackson to Eddie Murphy’s famous impression of him singing the song from EDDIE MURPHY: DELIRIOUS.

Through it all, Lee’s doc is an entertaining celebration of the man, with some juicy moments including a bit where MJ resists performing his old Jackson 5 hits in concert, until finally agreeing for his audience’s sake - much to his brothers chagrin. Lee also gets into the whole “Disco Sucks” movement that sprang up around the release of ‘Off the Wall’ making the argument that it had more to do with latent racism and homophobia than it did with any change in public tastes. This itself could prove fertile ground for Lee if he decided to branch out into the era a little more with another doc.

Jackson’s legions of fans (of which I’m one) will definitely love Lee’s new doc, and it played to packed houses throughout Sundance, even though it’s set to make it’s cable debut in just a few days. Jackson’s legacy lives on - and if nothing else after watching Lee’s doc you’re going to want to go out and listen to the album again.

Extra Tidbit: Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall premieres Feb 5th on Showtime
Source: JoBlo.com



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