Film Review: ‘Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall’

Spike Lee follows up 'Bad 25' with a bouncily entertaining, celeb-filled doc account of how Michael Jackson survived disco.

Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Nearly seven years after Michael Jackson’s premature passing, the world has probably gleaned as much as it ever will about the personal, physical and sexual curiosities of the posthumously reigning King of Pop; his enduringly influential artistry, however, remains ripe for renewed appreciation and appraisal. Leading the charge on this front is Spike Lee, who brings evidently profound personal affection and diligent research instincts to the inelegantly but self-explanatorily titled “Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off to Wall.” Corraling a wealth of talking heads — ranging from family members to essential collaborators to Rosie Perez — to examine Jackson’s transition from preternatural boy-band member to supernatural solo star, this bouncily entertaining doc may boast only a notch more formal ambition than a very well-assembled “Behind the Music” special, but is no less essential than Lee’s first MJ opus, the excellent “Bad 25.”

Like “Bad 25,” Lee’s latest finally amounts to an anatomy of a specific album — in this case, “Off the Wall,” the complex, skittering disco-funk grooves of which, in the summer of 1979, announced the erstwhile Jackson 5 prodigy as a fully self-contained adult hitmaker. It may not have been Jackson’s solo debut — he had cut several records as a teen on the Motown label — but it was as emphatic a statement of arrival as any in the history of recorded pop. “I will be magic … I will study and look back on the whole world of entertainment and perfect it,” reads a diary entry by Jackson from the mid-’70s, unearthed by his estate manager Karen Langford. Such words may have reeked of misplaced hubris prior to “Off the Wall,” but the spring-loaded melodies and diamond-cut production of the album’s high-water singles betray an urge to dominate an art form through sheer immaculateness of execution.

Lee sets up this glittering self-invention by examining a period of considerably less assurance: The doc’s first half is concerned with the patchy growing pains of Jackson’s time in the fraternal harmony group that made him famous. After a stunning string of No. 1 hits in 1969 and 1970, the Jackson 5’s popularity ebbed and flowed, their subsequent releases earning them higher chart placings in the R&B ghetto than in the mainstream. By the time they left Motown in 1975 to sign with Epic Records, seeking more creative autonomy over their work, the rebranded Jacksons were viewed in the industry as a spent force, their cartoon tie-in TV series having eroded their credibility as a crossover pop act. Former Epic head Ron Alexenburg, one of several record-biz honchos rounded up by Lee, admits the contract was a reluctant one on the label’s part.

Much of the most fascinating material in Lee’s film unparcels in detail the construction and impact of songs that proved key career markers: The Jacksons’ 1979 single “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” with its auspiciously snaky piano line and modernist (“dissonant,” as one A&R man puts it) verse structure, earns a significant chunk of screen time, not least since it pre-empted the cool sonic sheen that “Off the Wall” would bring to the party six months later. Though the film’s soundtrack is rich with the fizzing final products — included in recorded form or via dynamite live performance excerpts — Lee also astutely includes a number of demo tracks, demonstrating the often narrow bridge between Jackson’s songwriting process and the production influence of such industry fixtures as Quincy Jones (whose jazz background, we’re told, made him an unpopular choice with label execs to helm “Off the Wall”) and Gamble & Huff.

The second half, meanwhile, echoes “Bad 25’s” track-by-track format of album review, with the final effect akin to that of lively, anecdote-laden liner notes. If it’s ultimately less effective here than in the previous film, that might be due to “Off the Wall’s” own structural shortcomings. Latter-day super-producer Mark Ronson — one of many contemporary music luminaries on hand to talk up Jackson’s creative legacy, including Pharrell Williams, the Weeknd and Esperanza Spalding — aptly describes describes the album’s uptempo A-side as “a DJ’s dream.” Lee duly takes his time examining the sonic innovations and developing creative signatures embedded in such immortal floor-fillers as opening track “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” — boasting the first appearance of Jackson’s iconic “woooh!” yelp, loftily but wittily described by one interviewee as his own “free at last” rallying cry — and “Rock With You.”

Lee can’t, however, even feign equal interest in the album’s ballad-heavy back-end: Such disposable cuts as the Paul McCartney cover “Girlfriend” and Carole Bayer Sager’s adult-contemporary treacle “It’s the Falling in Love” are glossed over with nary a second glance. If the new film finally feels less exhaustive and substantial than “Bad 25,” that’s because, in terms of bulk alone, it is: Despite its decade-long area of scrutiny bracketed in its title, “Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off to Wall” clocks in at just 93 minutes, nearly 40 minutes shorter than its predecessor.

While auds surely wouldn’t begrudge Lee a more deliberate wallow in the disco era, the volume of information and variety of perspectives that the helmer and his editor Ryan Denmark have nimbly marshaled into a single, fleetly paced overview is nonetheless impressive. A duller documentarian likely wouldn’t find time for such disarming asides as Rosie Perez’s recollection of teenage fangirls wishfully speculating as to the wept-over subject of “She’s Out of My Life”; a less methodical one mightn’t trace songwriter Tom Bahler’s personal backstory to the same song, initially considered for Frank Sinatra.

Like the most engaging archivists and analysts of pop culture, Lee takes equal interest in geeky factual minutiae and more expansive, subjective extrapolations of meaning. Beneath the overriding spirit of retrospective celebration lies a still-active current of consciousness about the unstable place of black artists in history and the opportunities created in their wake: Pharrell Williams, for one, admits that he wouldn’t have the mass-market career he enjoys now if not for the fire lit by “Off the Wall.” Lee has thus far done a most persuasive job of reasserting Jackson’s importance as a musical and social trailblazer from the seamier intrigue of his celebrity; with its bookending albums now authoritatively covered, one hopes he has his sights set on the pop blockbuster of 1982’s “Thriller” for equivalent treatment.

Film Review: ‘Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall’

Reviewed online, Park City, Jan. 30, 2016. (In Sundance Film Festival — Documentary Premieres.) Running time: <strong>93 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) An Optimum Prods. production. Produced by Spike Lee, John Branca, John McClain. Executive producers, Karen Langford, Richard Story, Jim Parham, Gil Aronow.
  • Crew: Directed by Spike Lee. Camera (color), Kerwin DeVonish; editor, Ryan Denmark; sound, Stuart Deutsch, Caleb Mose; supervising sound editor, Philip Stockton; re-recording mixer, Paul Hsu; line producer, Heather Parish; associate producer, Barrington Giles Kirven.
  • With: Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy, Marlon Jackson, Jackie Jackson, Katherine Jackson, Joe Jackson, Leon Huff, Kenny Gamble, Valerie Simpson, ?uestlove, Kobe Bryant, Rosie Perez, Suzanne dePasse, Bobby Colomby, Lee Daniels, Rodney Jerkins, Mark Ronson, the Weeknd, David Byrne, Esperanza Spalding, Pharrell Williams, John Legend, DJ Spinna, Antonio "L.A." Reid, Stevie Wonder, Susaye Greene, David Foster, Carole Bayer Sager, Jason King, Greg Phillinganes, Joe Vogel, Steve Manning, John Leguizamo, Dream Hampton, Ron Alexenburg, Walter Yetnikoff, John Branca, Jonathan "Sugarfoot" Moffett, Verdine White, Misty Copeland, Fatima Robinson, Karen Langford, Barry Michael Cooper, Rob Cohen, Joel Schumacher, Harry Weinger, Maurice Warfield, Steven Ivory, Bruce Swedien, Mali Music, Siedah Garrett, Lemon Andersen, Tom Bahler, Larkin Arnold, Dan Beck, Spike Lee.
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