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Review: Michael Jackson, Before He Was King

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Review: Michael Jackson, Before He Was King

Post by MJ Mod on Fri Feb 12, 2016 12:39 am

Review: Michael Jackson, Before He Was King
Mike Hale
2/4/2016

When you think of Spike Lee as a director of documentaries, you probably think of “4 Little Girls” and “When the Levees Broke,” his somber, anguished accounts of assaults on black communities. But the majority of his nonfiction work has been in a lighter and more celebratory vein — music and comedy concert films, music videos, profiles of athletes like Kobe Bryant and Jim Brown.

Fitting solidly into that second category is “Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall,” which had its debut at Sundance last month and has its television premiere on Showtime on Friday. The film’s producers include the two executors of Jackson’s estate, and it is predictably admiring, though Mr. Lee keeps it from feeling too fawning, at least until the closing minutes. What it resembles more than anything is a deluxe extended episode of a television music-biography series like “Unsung” (or “Behind the Music” minus the scandals).

“Journey” shares that genre’s tendency toward superficiality and obviousness — only the most devout fan won’t tire of being told repeatedly what a brilliant singer and dancer Michael Jackson was. But it also possesses the genre’s virtues in abundance, beginning with the liberal use of performance footage, from the early days of the Jackson 5 to the Jacksons’ 1981 “Triumph” tour, an opportunity to appreciate not only Jackson’s preternatural skills but also a dazzling succession of skintight sequined jumpsuits.

And while the selection of interview subjects includes people whose connection to Mr. Lee is stronger than their connection to Jackson (Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, Mr. Bryant) and the occasional name-value choice without a lot to add (the ballet dancer Misty Copeland), there are talking heads who provide pleasure whenever they pop up on screen. The fabled R&B producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff lend a warm authority, and Jackson’s brothers Marlon and Jackie reminisce in delightful harmony, fully attuned to each other after decades together onstage.

This is Mr. Lee’s second documentary pegged to a Michael Jackson album, following “Bad 25” in 2012. Beginning with a brief account of the Jackson 5’s enormous initial success, “Journey” skips ahead to the their defection from Motown to Epic Records, where they became the Jacksons (and lost much of their early luster).

It frames the move as a bid for artistic freedom — Epic let the brothers write their own songs, which Motown wouldn’t allow. And Mr. Lee’s objective is to define Jackson as a particular type of artist — a thoughtful, highly conscious perfectionist who never stopped honing his technique, rather than an instinctual physical genius who merely had to walk onstage, pop his hips and let out a falsetto shriek.

Is that a case that needs to be made at this point? Probably not, but it’s still interesting, and moving, to hear the teenage Jackson earnestly discussing his aspirations and role models. In a handwritten self-motivational manifesto from 1979, he states, “I should be a new incredible actor singer dancer, that will shock the world.”

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As the film segues into a song-by-song analysis of “Off the Wall,” Jackson’s breakthrough 1979 solo album, another theme hovers in and out of sight: that the disc was the culmination of a period in his and his brothers’ careers when their music was most passionately embraced by black listeners, providing the soundtrack for their lives through the 1970s. Just over the horizon — and barely mentioned in the film — are “Thriller” and Jackson’s epic performance at the Motown 25th-anniversary celebration, when he ascended to a new and nearly unprecedented level of crossover fame.

Completely absent from “Journey” is any mention of Jackson’s later status as tabloid fodder, from the allegations of child molestation to the accusations of general weirdness. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Mr. Lee said that Jackson’s estate and his record label, Sony, ruled out certain subjects, but he also said, “I knew I didn’t want to deal with that stuff.”

He’s made a fan’s film, and he’s happy to let us know it, shouting out questions from behind the camera and cackling loudly when he particularly likes an answer. “Off the Wall” came out the same year as Mr. Lee’s first film, the student short “Last Hustle in Brooklyn,” and he includes a clip from that fledgling work. The closing credits of “Journey” end with a note that begins, “This documentary celebrates the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and the achievements of his album, ‘Off the Wall.’” It also celebrates some of Mr. Lee’s fonder memories.

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