There’s a moment about one-third of the way through Spike Lee’s new documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall in which the Jackson estate’s archivist pulls out a yellowed, frayed letter and reads aloud. Written after Michael and his brothers, collectively known as the Jackson 5, had left Motown and were recording under the name the Jacksons, the future King of Pop is jotting down various aspirational goals: He wants to get into the movies, he wants to explore all musical styles and directions, he wants to be addressed from this point forward as “MJ.” And then, near the end of this free-form vision board in miniature, there’s a single sentence scrawled in the middle of the page: “I want to be the greatest entertainer of all time.”
Mention this letter to Lee, and the director will let loose one of those loud Spike laughs that echoes off the walls of the Sundance press room he’s sitting in. “For most people, that concept might not be an attainable. But I think it’s safe to say that Michael reached his goals and then some.” By the time Thriller had turned the Gary, Indiana native into a global moonwalking phenomenon in the early Eighties, Jackson was the biggest musical star in the world. Before that, however, he had to break free from notions that he was part of “cartoon” act, go off on his own and make a solo album that would turn out to be a major turning point in late Seventies pop.
Charting the boy-to-man arc that occurred between putting out singles like “ABC” and the release of his 1979 hit album Off the Wall, Journey shows exactly how that pimply-faced kid with the Afro and the angelic voice became the artist who’d record “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Working Day and Night,” “Rock With You” and “She’s Out of My Life.” And as did with Bad 25, which delved into Jackson’s 1987 album, Lee collects choice archival footage and testimonials from the singer’s collaborators, select family members, and public figures ranging from Pharrell Williams to Misty Copeland and Kobe Bryant to provide a 360-degree picture of how MJ made a classic. “We’re connecting the dots,” Lee says. “People have forgotten that, after all that other stuff, that Michael made great music. That’s a big part of why we made this movie. This is where it all really starts.”
Settling into a chair and staring out at the film festival hustle and bustle happening on the street below, Lee talked about Jackson’s ambitions in making that seminal work, what he wants to do if he gets the chance to tackle Thriller next and why MTV’s revisionist attitude about playing black artists back in the day has got to go.