Spike Lee’s outstanding Showtime documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall has been packaged with the hugely influential 1979 album in a gorgeous CD/DVD package by Sony Legacy, which streeted last week.  

The film, co-produced by Jackson Estate managers John Branca and John McClain, chronicles the creation of an album that was pivotal in the unfolding of contemporary pop, a Grammy winner and a massive seller (it’s sold more than 30m worldwide, and has sold around 10m domestically). Though later overshadowed in pop culture by its successor, 1983’s Thriller, Off the Wall occupies a special place, not only for record-buying fans of MJ’s particular thing—which undoubtedly came into flower on its legendary tracks—but also for the artists, producers and DJs whose minds were rearranged by it.

Lee’s inspired doc seamlessly weaves together an amazing trove of footage—much of it new to these eyes—the film mines thoughtful testimony from the people who worked with MJ and many more who’ve used his work, and especially Off the Wall, as a point of creative departure. On camera, Branca calls the set “One of the most creatively influential albums in history,” and it’s hard to argue.

“Michael is alive, because his music is still here,” says Lee. “And every year a new generation is introduced to MJ. I just wanted to concentrate on the music, his musicianship, his genius, the humanity.  We don’t deal with that noise, all of the other stuff.”

“If you listen the radio today, it feels like Off the Wall is incredibly timely and relevant,” Branca says. “You can hear the influence in what Pharrell and Mark Ronson and so many others do.” This was key, he explains, in choosing to tell the story of the album, but the creators were also keen to trace this portion of Jackson’s history.

Jackson had emerged from the Motown experience—fronting the Tiger Beat hit machine known as The Jackson 5—seeking his own path. Having ridden a locomotive of scrupulously managed fame as the cute kid who sang like an angel, he had been summarily deposited at the awkward station of adolescence with bad skin, unruly hair and a shy, gawky disposition. He was still making strong music, of course, but little did anyone imagine what kind of butterfly would emerge from this ungainly chrysalis.

Lee: "When [MJ] came on stage, something clicked and he was going to give it his all, like it was going to be his last performance."

“If you said to most people today that there was a time when Michael’s career was said to be over, they’d say, ‘You’re kidding me,’” Branca muses. “But that’s the case. It’s part of what makes this such a compelling story.”

On the road with his brothers at age 21, Michael had scrawled a personal declaration—call it manifesto destiny—on the back of a tour schedule. “I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world,” it reads. “I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.”

The above words would read like megalomaniac delusion in any other case, the pipe dream of every wannabe at every audition in the world. They might have seemed even sadder coming from a gangly former child star now roundly dismissed as “over” by the record biz.

Only they came true.

Michael found his vision—and his bliss—in a dazzling fusion of disco, funk, pop and showbiz glitz. He was entranced by Studio 54, but also by the exquisite moves of Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Fred Astaire (who are seen in the film, in late-70s clips, admiring MJ’s own abilities as a dancer). But the route to Off the Wall required a trip over the Yellow Brick Road.

MJ lobbied hard to play the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s film of The Wiz, starring Diana Ross, and he tore shit up with his star power and energy—impressing the hell out of music director Quincy Jones, who immediately wanted to work with him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jones, Branca, Berry Gordy and Jackson family members offer the perspective only they can, while legendary exec Walter Yetnikoff admits he was dubious about signing MJ. And we hear from industry players like L.A. Reid and Bobby Colomby, who worked closely with Jackson.

Branca, The Weeknd, Questlove: Feeling the funk.

The film mines vital testimony from the likes of Pharrell, Ronson, Questlove, The Weeknd, Rodney Jerkins, John Legend and other creators who drill down into the magic of the recordings. The most indelible of these is “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” which has the kind of groove that pulls the most intractable wallflowers—the ones who think they’re allergic to the dancefloor—off the wall and into the heart of the crush like a giant, pulsing magnet. But there’s also the easy-rolling masterpiece “Rock With You,” the madly tight “Working Day and Night” and the deft funk of the title track, all of which changed the dance floor forever, not to mention the ballad “She’s Out of My Life,” which moved Michael to tears on every take, and considerably more.

Pharrell points out that there were essentially no black pop stars before Michael. Writer and MJ superfan Dream Hampton underlines that the typical narrative of “natural talent” applied to Michael and other great artists of color ignores the tremendous discipline, hard work and strategy they employ.

“If you said to most people today that there was a time when Michael’s career was said to be over, they’d say, ‘You’re kidding me.’ But that’s the case. It’s part of what makes this such a compelling story.” — John Branca

"Mike busted his ass," Lee insists. "He was not there lollygagging, he was doing work. When he came on stage, something clicked and he was going to give it his all, like it was going to be his last performance."

MJ’s longtime friend Kobe Bryant even says Michael’s focus upped his performance on the court. “If you approach things the way he approached music,” the hoops star declares in the film, “you will be phenomenal.”

Asked what’s next from the Jackson content laboratory, Branca notes he and his team prefer to develop material quietly and then deliver. But, he adds, “We definitely have some fun stuff coming up.”

Could a record like Off the Wall get made today? Branca admits there’s cause to wonder. He cites the producer-driven nature of much current music, as well as the emphasis on sponsorship and other commercial concerns. “I’m not sure as much time and care is spent anymore on making an album,” he reflects. “Singles are what drive the business nowadays.” Still, as this riveting documentary proves, sometimes an artist delivers a game-changing miracle—even when the world was about to count that artist out.


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