The title of Spike Lee's "Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall," an exhilarating new documentary premiering Friday on Showtime, could not be any plainer or more accurate. It's the story of how a child prodigy and pre-teen idol became a world-conquering solo artist, from the Jackson 5, to the Jacksons, to the man who was Michael.
Every artist is at least two people, intertwined yet also separate — the person who makes the art and the person who does everything else. It's impossible not to confuse them, and we like to read the life in the art, just as we tend to let the art glorify the life; but sometimes the art is made in spite of the life, or made without regard to it.
Michael Jackson may have been a mixed-up kid who became a mixed-up adult, but he was also an artist who knew his stuff, who thought a lot about craft, asked questions, made plans.
Lee has made a documentary about that Michael Jackson, the artist, a person driven, for reasons not worried over here, not only to make music but also to conquer the world. "I want a whole new character," he wrote in 1979, while on tour with his brothers, just before his solo career properly began. "I should be a totally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang, 'ABC,' 'I Want You Back.'…. I should be a new incredible actor, singer, dancer that will shock the world; I will do no interviews; I will be magic."
That kid who sang "I Want You Back" — still my candidate for greatest single of all time, and notwithstanding the fact that the singer was 11 and that it was a grown-up song, not a bubble-gum novelty — is here too, of course.
We follow him (and his overshadowed brothers) from Gary, Ind., to Detroit — Motown, Hitsville U.S.A. — where he hung around the factory floor, "just sitting in the wings and learning — I ate that up."
And from Motown to Epic Records, where the Jackson 5, now the Jacksons, went in search of creative self-determination.
It wasn't a perfectly upward trajectory; there were peaks and valleys — the rocky transition into adulthood, uncertainty about their signing at their new record company, the difficulty of, as Michael says here, "people not believing in your work, saying, 'Are you sure? Are you sure?'"
And yet, it's a pretty thrilling drive toward the future, from "ABC" to "Dancing Machine" to "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," written by Michael and his younger brother Randy, a Jacksons track that seems to lead ineluctably to Michael's wholly owned "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," the joyous first track and single from "Off the Wall." Taken with his other compositions on that album — "Working Day and Night," and "Get on the Floor," written with bassist Louis Johnson — it sounds like a manifesto and a working method.
Lee has assembled his film out of interviews now and archival, well-chosen photos and rare footage, musical clips from "Soul Train" and "American Bandstand," and a wealth of onstage performances.
By loading his film with musicians and producers and songwriters who can take a song down to its components — some of whom were behind the scenes, some of whom were then just kids buying the records — Lee keeps his celebration smart and not soppy. He gets you excited, makes you feel the moment, see what was new in it, why it mattered. Though Michael himself spoke of his father's abusiveness, it's not gone into here; Lee is less concerned with the psychology than the artistry, with what caused the scars than the patterns they made.
And this is a slice of a life that went on for an additional three decades: "Off the Wall" was released in August 1979, a couple of weeks before Jackson's 21st birthday.
Lee's film might be the foundation for an alternative history, a life in which things could have turned out differently.
It leaves you with a Michael as yet free from cosmetic alterations, tabloid accusations, chemical addictions.
There are no flash-forwards to that other, future person, a person all but unrecognizable except in his singing and dancing; there is not even "Thriller." Those years, those complications and triumphs are not for this piece. It just wants to rock with you.