The Spike Lee-directed film Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall details Michael Jackson’s ascent from Jackson 5 to The Jacksons to his own solo career that would ultimately dub him the King of Pop. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with a worldwide airing through Showtime on Friday, February 5. It’s a piece of work intended for MJ lovers, but proves to be a touchstone for artists (and fans of artists) into the process of becoming a larger-than-life figure.
Spike Lee enlists an all-star commentary from producers, executives, songwriters, and family members that had complete access to Michael. In these interviews, he takes a nuanced look at the singer’s first intensely trying transition of his life: his group’s move from Motown to CBS/Epic Records. There’s the legend that fans know, blessed with gifts no one else possessed. As the film progresses, it’s clear that what we’re to take from it all is that Michael toiled, worked, studied, and practiced his way to the peak of his career. None of it was overnight. In fact, a whole documentary about an album that was overshadowed by its follow-up is statement enough.
With unheard audio from Michael’s interviews and pieces of live performances with his brothers, it’s clear that Jackson was ready to unearth more of what he could do. Once the Jackson brothers began working with legendary producers Gamble & Huff in 1976, Michael began to strip away the basic elements of what made disco great to create tunes for himself and his brothers [the documentary spends a good amount of time on “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”]. There was gold within this awkward era of transition, including his role in the classic film The Wiz. We learn it was then that Quincy Jones’s musical love affair with Michael began and we’re even told the exact moment it happened.
There’s a great amount of beauty in the documentary. Michael’s transition from Motown to CBS could have been career stalling, but it was the perfect time to execute all he learned and aspired to be in the past decade. More specific, his knowledge on how to cut a record and itch to get onto the silver screen. He was gearing up. Then with Off the Wall he geared up some more. Some of today’s producers, singers, and artists sit in the interview chair to perceptively talk about Off the Wall’s technical merits, and it gives hope to the current state of music that many are quick to label as “sinking.”
The documentary, while revealing very little new information about Michael, paints the era of 1975 to 1979 as a golden era of expansion for Jackson — a time to play and dream. There’s a wonderful handwritten manifesto by Michael during that time about what he intended to do for the world of entertainment, it’s sad and at the same time telling of the power that talent and dedication for a craft could accomplish. For any Michael Jackson lover, fan of art, stan of music, or anyone dedicated to a profession, there’s a lot to learn from Michael’s journey to Off the Wall.
Catch Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall on ShowTime on Demand.