In the first two of its four parts, the doc depicts a rising star whose decision to take her career by the reins represented a split from her famous family, through old footage as well as interviews with Jackson closer to the present day. Those interview segments, though, struggle to reveal much about a figure whose poise, and whose commitment to privacy, makes “Janet Jackson” a challenge. Janet Jackson seems at times to be operating at cross-purposes with “Janet Jackson” — which would make for an intriguing battle of wills, but for the fact that the real Janet wins so handily.
Ben Hirsch, the documentary’s director, had access to Jackson for years, and spoke to her as well as creative collaborators and members of her family. (Jackson-watchers will, perhaps, find intrigue in which of her siblings speak on the record.) In one early scene, for instance, Jackson returns to her family’s home city of Gary, Indiana, to look at her childhood home. There’s a raw emotional power to Jackson’s bearing in these scenes — she breaks down in tears, for instance, looking at a mural of the Jackson Five, the boy band comprised of her brothers. And this visceral quality can elide the fact that Jackson seems allergic to disclosure.
In these early reflections on childhood, for instance, Jackson seems reticent to address her upbringing beyond generalities that suggest that, as she sees it, whatever challenges may have come in the past brought her where she is today. It would be churlish to critique her for feeling this way, even as family patriarch Joe Jackson was reputed to be unusually hard-driving (to say the least). And perhaps there’s something refreshing about a star who simply refuses to engage in a conversation around the idea of possible past trauma. But Jackson can’t help seeming scripted when she drops truisms about her parents like, “Discipline without love is tyranny, and tyrants they were not.”
Janet, as she tells us elsewhere, may have wanted to go solely by her first name early in her career, but her loyalty is to the Jacksons. Her reticence is her right — and, more than that, it’s easily understandable, given the degree to which she’s been the object of leering speculation throughout her life around very challenging topics, from her family to her race to her body. But it raises the question of what any of us, subject or audience, are doing here. Even as she, later, brings herself further out of her shell, there is a point of vulnerability or openness Jackson will not cross. Speaking about the end of her marriage to James DeBarge, Jackson breaks down in tears. “Ben, I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how much work you do, it’s still painful.” She is not pushed farther; we fade to black.
Jackson is press-shy: Her mystique has, through her recent career, been cultivated through her music, and otherwise through silence. Subjecting herself to a documentary made by a sympathetic filmmaker (rather than, say, a journalistic interview) allows Jackson to be somewhat curatorial in her choices of what to reveal. And her silence can, by force of will, withstand the camera’s gaze. But the viewer, losing patience, may question why something Jackson is undertaking willingly needs to be quite so hard.
What is in this for Jackson? A chance, perhaps, to correct misconceptions: She goes on the record about the (false, she indicates) rumors of her having had a secret baby, and a meaningful reckoning with her late brother Michael may yet lay ahead. (About Michael, Janet speaks in the doc’s first two sections only in vague terms about their having grown apart in his early solo stardom.) There’s, too, the obvious temptation to accept adulatory treatment. Jackson is rightly celebrated by various talking heads for the pathbreaking success of albums like “Control” and “Rhythm Nation 1814.” That Jackson’s career was arrested in 2004 following her denuding at the Super Bowl by Justin Timberlake isn’t just unfair: It had the effect of erasing a long legacy of exceptional work from the landscape. (Even before “Janet Jackson’s” release, this act of cultural deletion has slowly been reversing itself, with Jackson’s 2019 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a 2021 New York Times-produced documentary, made without Jackson’s participation, intended to reclaim her reputation.)
Fans will take heart that Jackson is presented here in her best light: That archival footage depicts a talent at the top of her game, and in the present day, she seems serene and happy, with tearful moments punctuating an overall sense of Zen calm. It’s hard not to feel, though, that “Janet Jackson” does a better job of flattering its central pop idol in easy ways than honoring her in more challenging ones. If Jackson’s artistic legacy is indeed up there with the all-time pop greats — Prince, Madonna, Jackson’s own brother — then she can withstand more complication. Indeed, fans of hers ought to welcome it, to better understand a figure who seems perpetually to elude Hirsch’s grasp. For now, Jackson remains fascinating but enigmatic — a star about whom we’ll perpetually want to know more. And viewers will have known that before investing the time in a doc that can’t quite figure out its namesake.
“Janet Jackson” premieres Friday, January 28 at 8 p.m. E.T., and continues Saturday, January 29 at 8 p.m. E.T., on Lifetime and A&E.