Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall (2016)

After detailing the production of the hit album Bad, Spike Lee (Chi-Raq) delves into Michael Jackson’s youth as he moved from the lead singer of the Jackson 5 to his solo work. Lee is clearly a fan and was a close friend of Jackson’s. He and his team have collected previously unseen concert and recording footage and interviewed several music industry professionals and celebrities to explore this section of Jackson’s life.

Michael Jackson’s music and performances are timeless. Whether as a beaming child or a suave young adult, Jackson always displays a vivacious charisma. His lanky body is a vessel for the rhythm of the music and he steals the show any time he is on screen dancing. Lee takes care to expose the intense practice that went into making his performances seem so effortless. As an interviewee states, black performers are often credited as having innate gifts rather than talent from hard work. Lee is clearly interested in dispelling any similar thoughts. Even at a young age, Jackson is shown to have a fierce desire to excel, spending time with established songwriters to learn their craft and practicing dance moves without end. His commitment and grit allowed him to improve from a child prodigy to one of the greatest performers of all time.

Jackson's music and energy are without equal and the interviews suffer in comparison.
Jackson’s music and energy are without equal and the interviews suffer in comparison.

The energy of the concert footage overshadows the interviews. While these sections are necessary to provide insight into the background behind the productions, they pale in comparison to the actual music. This is further exacerbated by Lee’s choice of interviewees. There are key players like the head of Motown Records and other important collaborators who knew Jackson and were a part of his creative process, but many seem unnecessary. Is Kobe Bryant, a basketball player, really needed? This applies to almost all the commentators that are contemporary. Jackson’s influence is obvious to anyone, especially to the audience who would watch a documentary about him, so having modern singers like The Weeknd praise his impact on music is redundant at best and irritating at worst. It seems as if Lee pulled in his celebrity network to offer their perspectives, but they only pad the runtime without adding depth to the conversation.

With so much other media available, the question of necessity has to be raised. Did we need another Michael Jackson documentary? Is it telling us anything new? The answer to both questions is not really. The film is of two minds. It is trying to exhibit unseen footage of Jackson’s concerts for hardcore fans as well as understand the man himself. Lee’s goal may have been to understand how Jackson progressed his career during this time period, but he loses sight of this in favor of heaping praise on his subject. Even the interviewees that would have the deepest knowledge of how the music was made focus on complimenting Jackson above all else. Their constant kudos is deserved but not value-added. The film proves that the best Michael Jackson film might just be selected recordings of his shows. Because of its divided scope, Lee’s documentary dampens the electrifying performances with earned, but superfluous adulation.

3/5 stars.

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