Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall

Dir: Spike Lee, 2016. Music.
Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall

If only every great artist could have a film made about them like Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall. Instead of trying to tell the entire Jackson story in one long novelistic film, Lee wisely concentrates on a few chapters, which allows him to really dig deep. Like the Martin Scorsese doc Bob Dylan: No Direction Home that spent over three hours telling the story of the folk icon’s period only up until the late '60s, Lee’s film focuses on the relatively brief period from the late '60s to ’79. He takes on Jackson’s newfound stardom as part of The Jackson Five, culminating in the making and release of his pop/disco masterpiece album Off The Wall. Lee throws everything he can at the screen, creating a dynamic hodgepodge of images and commentary. In his growth from child to young man, Jackson's world was full of musical influences and there is a plethora of archival footage from Fred Astaire to fellow Motown artists to Studio 54 to illuminate Lee's points. The amount of material documenting Jackson’s personal and creative growth is staggering. There are all those Jackson 5 music and television appearances, collaborations with Motown, studio work and even a Saturday morning cartoon show. Lee incorporates a "then and now" bookend by weaving in footage from the later Jacksons Victory Tour, giving us a chance to see Michael interpret his songs as both a boy and a man.

All the on-screen witnesses speak of the young Michael’s ambition, watching closely and questioning the adults he was surrounded by. That ambition led to the family leaving Motown while Michael was in his teens; the group became the more disco-infused The Jacksons and paved the way for Michael to slowly take on a stronger role in shaping the music his own way. He ventured away from his brothers first by recording the theme song for the killer rat movie Ben (and getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for it) and by appearing as the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of the Broadway smash The Wiz. Eventually everything he gleamed along the way led to the Off The Wall album.

The lineup of people providing commentary is staggering. Much of it is brand new, but some of it is from archival clips (like Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis Jr. explaining Michael’s dancing genius). Interview subjects also range from his family to younger fans in the music business discussing his impact (Mark Ronson, The Weeknd). There are film directors (Lee Daniels for no explained reason and Joel Schumacher because he wrote the script for The Wiz). There are cultural historians (the elegant and insightful Dream Hampton) and of course the usual Spike Lee suspects (John Leguizamo and Rosie Perez, giving the film an odd New York tilt). Basketball star Kobe Bryant gets a lot of airtime and strangely offers some of the more compelling analysis, representing the hard work and gritty side of the Jackson legend. Each song from Off The Wall gets an in-depth discussion, with most commentary articulateled by Questlove (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson) of The Roots, who proves once again he should be included in every music documentary.

As a feature film director Spike Lee has had a hit-and-miss filmography since he exploded on the scene in the mid '80s, but his documentary resume has been immaculate. His Jim Brown: All American showed an ability to tackle a complicated personality, rarely felt in his fiction films. His civil rights doc 4 Little Girls should be required viewing and his epic meditation on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts was groundbreaking. He had earlier tackled the topic of Michael Jackson in 2012 with the completely entertaining dissection of his Bad album, Bad 25.

Though the film aptly explains the segregated music world that Off The Wall was released into, the film cuts itself off there, as Jackson’s next chapter (Thriller) completely knocked down those barriers and has been documented extensively since. It frankly need its own film. Lee generally stays away from the abuse and trauma that has been reported from Jackson’s lost childhood, and which is often used to explain the more negative aspects of his adult life. Instead, Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall is a celebration of the music and the pop culture journey that Jackson took, some times as a follower but often as a trailblazer. Perhaps the greatest on-film bible for any modern music act may be The Beatles Anthology, (which is pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about The Beatles) but Lee may be slowly putting together his own Jackson anthology. Albeit not in chronological order, a continuation would be exciting as there's still another peak for Jackson biographers to explore, although the lows to come might be too unbearable for fans to relive.

As of writing, the only hard copy available for sale of Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall comes with the latest reissue of Off The Wall on CD. No Blu-Ray is yet available.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 16, 2016 2:03pm
Steve Earle and the Dukes
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