The Sorrow Behind the Spotlight

"The Jacksons--An American Dream" is that rare television biography that sings, though its tune is frequently downbeat. It's a rocking, pulsating, gyrating, bewitching five hours that resonate the angry rhythms behind the joyous music of a dysfunctional family that produced one of the most electrifying entertainers of our time.

As most everyone knows, the Jackson Five was ultimately supplanted by the even more glittering and famous Jackson One. Several actors dazzle on stage here as Michael Jackson at various ages, yet, like his siblings, Michael is a supporting character throughout much of this ABC saga, which airs in two parts: Sunday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday at 9 p.m., on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42.

A study in abuse, it could be renamed "Daddy Dearest."

Although made with "the cooperation of family members" and produced by Jermaine Jackson and his wife, Margaret--who share an Encino mansion with the Jackson parents--this intense drama drives a stake right through patriarch Joseph Jackson. It depicts him as a cruel, demanding, repressive tyrant of a father who bullies and literally strong-arms his talented sons into becoming a charismatic, top-of-the-charts singing group known for up-tempo sounds and precision choreography.

Even though La Toya is the only Jackson not involved, one could infer from this story that some of the charges she made against her father in her fiery autobiography are at least plausible.

What applied to Tina Sinatra's producing of last week's largely negative CBS miniseries about her father, Frank Sinatra, also applies to family involvement in the making of "The Jacksons": If this is the cleaned-up version, what must have really happened?

His hard eyes hinting at anger greater even than that in Joyce Eliason's script, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs is a surly, smoldering, snorting, snarling, menacingly good Joseph, obsessed with "whupping" his boys into musical shape so that stardom can be the family's ticket out of working-class Gary, Ind.

The plan seems reasonable on the surface. But this ambition run amok makes emotional casualties of not only the Jackson kids, including daughters Janet and La Toya, but also their suffering mother, Katherine, affectingly played by Angela Bassett. Although Katherine's strength appears ultimately to prevail, it's a long time struggling to the surface.

Her body a conveyor belt for babies, Katherine keeps right on delivering, she explains, because "Joe don't believe in no birth control."

Taking after their guitarist father, the kids have music in their genes, turning even their housecleaning chores into spontaneous musicals. "We may even get a group started," says Joseph. Then he goes into debt buying musical equipment to make it happen.

He's a visionary, foreseeing a future beyond ordinary eyesight. But the dreamer is driven by demons, pounding stagecraft into his sons physically as well as mentally. An early scene--in which a young Marlon Jackson's failure to execute a dance routine earns him a whipping from Joseph--becomes a dark metaphor for many of the family troubles that follow. Did the Osmonds have it this bad?

Director Karen Arthur's many reved-up musical sequences cover the entire scale: Jason Weaver's young Michael and his brothers spark fan hysteria. . . . Michael-lookalike Wylie Draper lip syncs and dances spectacularly to "Billy Jean". . . . After splitting, the brothers hit the boards once more for their high-wattage Victory Tour. . . . And so on and so on. Choreographed by Michael Peters, these scenes are staged with such flair and zest that you're jumping out of your seat.

The Jackson youngsters' long legs carry them across the screen, their happy smiles hiding the sorrow beneath their music. Much of that sorrow results from Joseph's despotic attempts to stunt his sons' development in every way but musically so that they won't be distracted by the outside world and he can remain in control. He sees that control slipping after the Jackson Five signs with Motown Records and comes increasingly under the influence of its founder, Berry Gordy (Billy Dee Williams). As Gordy embraces and gives advice to an adolescent Michael, Joseph glares from a distance, conveying suspicion, jealousy, antipathy and extreme distress in almost the same instant.

It's a signal that not only the Jackson Five, but also the entire family is disintegrating.

Michael, who had approval of the director, writer, script and three actors playing him, is defined ambiguously in this production, which was executive produced by Stan Margulies and Suzanne de Passe, who discovered the Jackson Five when she was a Motown executive. "The Jacksons" never reconciles the adorable little Michael who becomes the family's lead singer with the grotesquely, cartoonishly, androgynously remade cosmic superstar that he would become.

There are hints that cosmetic refinements are ahead. As a teenager, Michael frets about his acne, worries that "my nose is too wide" and "my voice is changed" and confides to his mother, "I don't know who I am," as if unable to disengage from his stage persona. The story jumps to 1983, and he is already becoming reclusive and getting the look .

More than just convincing, Draper's moon-walking likeness to Michael is remarkable. His achievement is that of a gifted impressionist rather than an actor trying to get beneath the skin of a living icon, as Philip Casnoff futilely tried doing in the CBS miniseries about Sinatra.

Concluding in 1984, "The Jacksons" not only fails to dent the Michael mystique but also artlessly turns the Victory Tour into a tailored-for-TV upbeat ending--with supportive Joseph and Katherine beaming at their sons from the wings--that collides with much that precedes it.

Only the family knows just how much of "The Jacksons" collides with truth.