It was a bizarrely mellow song for a
trashy exploitation film about killer rats, but “Ben,” the theme from Ben, played a critical role establishing
Michael Jackson’s identity outside the Jackson 5. His early solo years are often
overlooked by the media that prefers either the Motown Moppet or the
Moonwalking glory years. Yet, hipper fans have a special fondness for his late
1970s music. Spike Lee returns to documentary filmmaking with the awkwardly
titled Michael Jackson’s Journey from
Motown to Off the Wall (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in advance
of its early February premiere on Showtime.
In a way, these years are the missing link
between the two indelible Michael Jacksons we have in our mind’s eye. There are
transitional, but the music was confident. In fact, this is probably the
Jackson we should try to remember. Regardless of his shifting appearance and
unfortunate media kerfuffles, Jackson was more or less playing a persona after
the runaway success of Thriller.
However, he seems really real in the archival interviews segments Lee
It is also cool to hear Jackson pay tribute
to the masters who came before him, such as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Sammy
Davis, Jr., and even Duke Ellington. Quincy Jones also remembers their long and
fruitful association, starting with their work on the film adaptation of The Wiz. Lee talks to a lot of the
studio guys, who were part of the process, including Bobby Colomby (Jaco
Patorius’s producer), arranger Greg Phillinganes, and engineer Bruce Swedien.
Getting their perspective helps broaden our appreciation for Jackson as an
artist and a professional. Appropriately, Berry Gordy is also afforded plenty
of time to talk about their work together. Regardless what you think of the
Motown founder, you just can’t tell the story without him.
As a documentary, MJ’s Journey is pretty conventional stuff, largely alternating
between talking heads and performance clips. However, there are a few moments
of editorial slyness, like Charleston Heston introducing Jackson’s performance
of “Ben” at the Academy Awards. Frankly, the doc just doesn’t have enough clips
of the rats.
Lee has a good sense of pace and his informal interviewing style elicits some
candid reminiscences. Even if you are not a fan, Journey is highly watchable. It is sort of like a better
installment of the old Behind the Music series,
except it ends with Jackson on the cusp of his greatest triumph. Yet, we leave
feeling maybe things would have been better if he had simply maintained this
level of popular yet relatively grounded success. Worth checking out,
especially if you are a fan or have an interest in music production, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off
the Wall screens again today (1/25) and Friday (1/29) in Park City,
Wednesday (1/27) in Sundance Mountain Resort, and Saturday (1/30) in Salt Lake,
as part of this year’s Sundance.
Labels: Documentary, Michael Jackson, Spike Lee, Sundance '16