10 Things We Learned From Spike Lee’s New Michael Jackson Doc
Michael Jackson made bigger records than Off the Wall, but he arguably never made a better one — the album’s masterful fusion of funk, disco, pop and Quiet Storm R&B captures the singer at his most effervescent. A deluxe edition of the record arrives February 26th, accompanied by a new documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall, helmed by Spike Lee, who also directed a movie about the 25th anniversary of Bad. From Motown to Off the Wall premiered at Sundance in January, and it airs on Showtime February 5th. In the film, the Weeknd, Pharrell, Questlove, Mark Ronson, John Legend, David Byrne and many other famous artists turn up to discuss Jackson’s importance.
Here are 10 key facts, gleaned from the film, about Jackson’s climb from child star to pop royalty.
The first four Jackson 5 singles all became Number One hits.
The Jackson 5 came out with guns blazing, scoring four consecutive crossover Number One hits: “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There.” A parade of stars remember the seminal importance of those early singles in the documentary, and the director Lee Daniels goes so far as to credit them with sparking his entire career: “That’s what motivated me.”
When Epic Records signed the Jackson 5, it was seen as a foolish move.
In the early Seventies, Motown clashed with a number of its biggest artists, notably Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, who were looking to have more personal control over their artistic output. The Jackson 5 went through a similar struggle with Berry Gordy, who ran his label with an iron fist, and the group ended up leaving Motown for Epic Records. (Except for Jermaine, who stayed behind — he was married to Gordy’s daughter.) Gordy refused to surrender the rights to the name “The Jackson 5,” so Michael and Co. morphed into the Jacksons. Despite their previous success, a record executive from Epic suggests that it was “not a popular signing.” “They had a cartoon series,” he notes in the doc. “The credibility was questionable.”
The group’s embrace of Philadelphia soul was crucial to the Jacksons’ evolution.
Most listeners know 11-year-old wunderkind Michael Jackson and world-conquering Thriller-era Michael Jackson, but in a lesser-known transitional phase, the Jacksons headed to Philadelphia to record with Gamble & Huff. This songwriter/producer duo excelled at creating lush, dynamic records that anticipated disco; they worked with the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blues Notes, and Billy Paul. In the movie, Questlove explains, “[The Jacksons] came in as a bubblegum. No one ever graduates from being a cute kids group to being taken seriously.” But with the aid of Gamble & Huff, the Jacksons started on that path.