Ambitious attempt to trace career of Gary, Indiana’s most famous singing siblings starts with 1945 meeting of Joseph Jackson and wife-to-be Katherine, and climaxes with the Jacksons’ 1984 “Victory” reunion tour. Five-hour mini is several years too late and at least 120 minutes too long to capture and sustain maximum interest. On the other hand, as showbiz bios go, it’s a commendable effort at approximating the truth.
Producers include Jermaine Jackson and long-time Motown exec Suzanne de Passe , who between them should know where most of the skeletons are buried. Also involved are Motown Records and Polygram Films, subsid of company that’s label’s co-owner. No longer with the label, founder Berry Gordy Jr. still owns rights to most Motown hits, several of which he licensed for use in this pic.
Revelations in Joyce Eliason’s well-researched script include credit to Motown artist Bobby Taylor, and not Diana Ross, for discovering the Jacksons; that de Passe instructed Michael to shave two years from his publicized age (“You’re cuter at 9 than you are at 11”); and that Gordy had to virtually beg Michael to join his brothers on the “Motown 25” special.
Show fails to reveal, however, how English singer (and CBS Records act) Adam Ant did wind up on Motown tribute, still one of life’s greatest mysteries.
Bulk of film concentrates on parents Joseph (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) and Katherine (Angela Bassett), with focus shifting to Michael as his solo career takes flight, leaving brothers and parents in the dust.
There are so many Jackson children that it’s confusing to keep track even of Michael’s five brothers; performing careers of sisters Rebbie, La Toya and Janet are barely hinted at. Having most of the siblings portrayed at various ages by several actors only helps to obscure their identities.
Main pacing problem is with film’s first installment; initial hour or so is dedicated to slow-moving love story with virtually no appeal to younger audiences. Then action (such as it is) turns to cliched storyline where a bunch of kids form a band and work their way, episodically, to the top.
How dull is it? First episode’s most dramatic moment may be the death of young Michael’s pet rat, well before the young singer scored with “Ben.”
Second night’s installment is much more briskly paced, with accent on music and drama as family finally falls apart, coming together briefly for “Motown 25” TV special and the tour constituting the group’s last set of appearances together. Show ends with misleading implication that all ended well for entire family, and not just Michael.
Angela Bassett turns in a strong and subtle performance in the film’s best-written part, that of long-suffering Katherine. A shy girl who falls for the oily charmsof steelworker Joseph, she manages to hold the marriage together despite his inattentions to her, which range from bullying the kids into their snazzy singing and dancing to his own philandering.
Remaining acting is OK, with few of the players given much opportunity to emote. Hilton-Jacobs handles Joseph Jackson’s evolution from charmer to bully convincingly.
Imaginative casting finds Billy Dee Williams in genial portrait of Gordy, and Vanessa Williams as de Passe. Holly Robinson appears in a brief but important cameo as Diana Ross.
Current hit Motown group Boyz II Men appears briefly singing a number on a Gary street corner.
Tech credits vary. Many of the period scenes look very good–the ’70s sequences must have exhausted Hollywood’s supply of Afro wigs–but that and the location shooting must have used up most of the budget; re-creation of “Motown 25” and the “Victory” tour look cheap.
Musical sequences were nicely choreographed by Michael Peters, also responsible for the real Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Beat It” dances.
Pic overall gives short shrift to Cholly Atkins and other Motown staffers responsible for Jackson kids’ look and sound.
Soundtrack convincingly alternates authentic Michael Jackson vocals lifted from records with newly recorded lead tracks credited to Anthony Harrell, Jason Weaver and Chris Lennon.
Result is odd disclaimer in tiny type at end of show: “Vocals performed by actors portraying Michael Jackson are not intended as simulations of Mr. Jackson’s voice.”