To many, the Cult of Celebrity has meant that the name Michael Jackson has come to symbolise eccentricity, mystery and tragedy. However, to music fans, it is clear that to simply consider such an artist this way is an injustice, as Jackson’s career spanned a multitude of genres and four decades, allowing for the mainstream to become accepting of music from all races.
Filmmaker Spike Lee, longtime friend and fan of Jackson, creates documentaries that peel back such distractions and remind us all of the young boy, and later grown man, who captured the imaginations of the entire world for four decades and beyond. No matter your opinion or stance on Jackson as a human being, they remind us simply that he was an artist – one whom, many argue, had no parallel.
In 2012, Lee created Bad 25 – a documentary film celebrating twenty-five years of Jackson’s seventh studio album Bad in how it shocked the music industry and Jackson fans alike, as the young man who had ‘Thrilled’ the world in rhinestones suddenly appeared in head to toe leather and buckles, with loose Jheri curls and wonderfully aggressive ‘stadium’ songs that sounded like they came straight off the streets of Harlem.
With Thriller’s industry-defying figures continuing even to this day – it remains the ‘Biggest Selling Album of All Time’, with estimated sales of half a billion since its release in 1983 – and Bad’s provocative, head-turning style change, it is easy to forget the album that in fact set ‘squeaky clean’ Michael Joseph Jackson of the Jackson 5 on the path to becoming the most famous, and one of the most renowned, musicians in the world: Off The Wall.
As a long-time Jackson fan, I was thrilled to be invited to watch Spike Lee’s latest Jackson documentary, Journey from Motown to Off The Wall, at BAFTA in Piccadilly, London, before anyone else. After thoroughly enjoying the detailed coverage of Bad 25, I was looking forward to a film surrounding an era that even I knew less about.
The film begins as any Jackson project should – and as all did even during Jackson’s lifetime – with the iconic ‘Optimum Productions’ opening sequence, in which Jackson’s loafer-clad feet and sparkling white socks fill the frame and walk to what seems to be his mark. Then, as was his way, with a casual chuckle, he suddenly spins 360 and leap onto his toes with a trademark ‘Woo!’, so dazzlingly fast that if you blinked you might miss it. This image then transforms into a sparkling silhouette of the toe-stand pose, with the production company’s name beneath. It may seem like a tiny, insignificant detail, but this one detail said a lot to me about Spike Lee’s respect and love for his film’s subject, as this logo sequence was of Jackson’s own design for, what was then known as ‘M.J Productions, for his 1987 film Moonwalker.
It is such a hard-hitting production logo, in fact, that the audience, in the hallowed halls of BAFTA, whooped and cheered throughout, despite the fact the film had yet to begin. In that small moment, it felt as though the crowd were not cheering the film, but simply trying to communicate with the man himself, as if to say: We see you.
Throughout the film, Lee interviews every influential name still living that was ever associated with Jackson – though, in particular, those who knew him as a eleven year old boy in the Jackson 5: his mother, Katherine Jackson; his somewhat problematic father, Joseph Jackson (whom Michael revealed in his 1987 autobiography beat all five Jackson brothers during their childhood); his brothers, Jackie and Marlon Jackson, whom, in select moment, seem so alike to their most famous brother in their onomatopoeic descriptions of baselines and percussion that it leaves one wondering how the band ever split apart; founder of Motown, and more importantly, the man who is credited to have ‘discovered of Michael Jackson, Berry Gordy; and fellow Motown child prodigy, Stevie Wonder, just to name a few. There were also famous modern names slipped in, such as world-famous British producer Mark Ronson and U.S DJ ?uestlove, though most of what they had to say was little more than: “With ‘Off The Wall’, he created a DJ’s dream album”.
The film also makes expert use of archived footage of the Jackson brothers, both in their earliest days as The Jackson 5 and later, after their move from Motown to Epic Records, as The Jacksons. The film unearths beautiful hidden gems in interviews with some of Jackson’s heroes; the late dance legend Sammy Davis Jr, as well as ‘Singing in the Rain’ Hollywood star Gene Kelly and even Fred Astaire, all talking about how a little black boy from Gary, Indiana, had astounded them with his thirst and drive to simply learn.
(The film, over the footage of a teenage Jackson interviewing Fred Astaire in the mid-70s, very poignantly remarks that Fred Astaire, known to many of the greatest dancer to have ever been, would point at Jackson and say, “That is the greatest dancer to have ever lived”.
“Hollywood stars Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire appear talking about how a little black boy from Gary, Indiana, had astounded them with his thirst and drive to simply learn“
The film features some incredibly powerful and gritty The Jacksons World Tour performances, from shows in the U.S.A to shows at small theatres in London – a world away from the stadium tours that fills the music business today. By the time The Jacksons toured in 1981, Off The Wall had been released. Consequently, in such footage it is clear where the world, and the Jacksons themselves, were beginning to see something in the second youngest Jackson brother that they did not see in the rest of the band; his trademark vocal techniques were emerging, along with more and more dazzlingly smooth dance moves. That and he now had a best-selling solo album to his name.
The film, thankfully, also points to some of the tragedies of this period of music; the racist and homophobic ‘Death to Disco’ public burning of disco records in 1979, which occurred just one month after the release of Off The Wall; the fact that pop radio stations, and pop institutions in general, refused to play Jackson’s solo album upon its first release. This was simply due to the fact that Jackson was seen as an ‘R&B’ artist, which was code for, quite clearly, he was a black artist, making what white-centric pop stations considered to be black music.
This prejudice only got worse still. Most tragically, despite the fact Off The Wall sold eight million copies in its first week and became the thing, even on pop radio, The Academy of Music only nominated Off The Wall for ‘Best R&B’ at that years Grammy Awards, and orchestrated the timing of Jackson’s award win so that the majority of audiences were not watching, as they had been redirected to local programming, or were on a commercial ad break.
The film remarks most satisfyingly, though, through the words of Katherine Jackson, how this did not talk Jackson out of attempting to break down racial barriers. The power of the Academy did not frighten him, but fired him up.
“He said, ‘Next year, mother. The next year, they’ll have to give it to me.” Behind the camera, you can practically hear Spike Lee smile as he says, “And that was Thriller.”
This is the testament of the entire film, of course. That beneath the hype and wonder of Jackson’s sixth solo album, lies a diamond that deserves, in its thirty-fifth year since it won a Grammy, to be polished and rediscovered again.
As many an interviewee remarked, “Without Off The Wall, there would be no Thriller.”
India Rose Meade
“Michael Jackson: The Journey from Motown to Off The Wall” (a Sony Music production) is on sale as part of a reissued CD/DVD 2-disc format from February 26th, 2016 at amazon.co.uk and shopmichaeljackson.com and all major music retailers.
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.