Over two nights, Janet Jackson’s story is being told in detail — by none other than Jackson herself.
Airing simultaneously on Lifetime and A&E, Janet Jackson is a four-part docuseries that mixes a traditional retelling of a pop star’s life from childhood until now with some juicy revelations; the series straddles the difficult line between rare intimacy from an extremely private public figure and the tight control that comes from letting said figure dictate that narrative. (The first two episodes premiere tonight; the second two air on January 29th.)
In many ways, Jackson’s life has been documented since she was young. Her brothers signed to Motown as the Jackson 5 when she was a toddler, quickly becoming megastars and launching the entire family into a bigger level of fame than the Gary, Indiana natives were likely ready to handle. Though from Janet’s perspective, it’s the only life she knew, and the first episode plays out like an old-school music documentary in its retelling of her early years. She visits Gary and the home she barely remembers with her brother Randy, the second youngest kid in the family. The pair recall their father Joe Jackson, an infamous figure in their lives who was accused of physically and emotionally abusing his children by Michael Jackson, clearly the standout star of the Jackson 5. His brothers and parents refuted Michael’s claims of excessive abuse. Janet kind of does too: she describes their late father as a “tough” and strict man. But she is ultimately thankful for the discipline, stating that she owes her career to him. Like many controversial figures in her life so far, Ms. Jackson leaves it at that.
Later, while driving through Las Vegas, Janet explores the shift in her family dynamic. As the baby of the Jacksons, she found it hard to fit in with her working brothers whose successful careers controlled their lives. It was in Vegas, however, where she finally sought a spotlight of her own. On stage during the Jackson 5 residency, she would imitate Cher and Mae West, singing or dishing out one-liners.
Jackson seems torn between two sides of her that emerged as her own star grew brighter: while she was finally carving out a space of her own, she also craved the type of normalcy she never had. She ended up being cast as a troubled young child on Good Times, launching a successful acting career. By the time she was wrapping up high school, she wanted to pivot away from entertainment and attend college to study business law. Upon discovering a reel of Janet playing around in the home studio with a song she had written for fun, Joe Jackson told her she was going to be pursuing a career in singing instead. It’s hard to tell exactly how Janet felt about that moment where her life was decided for her, almost against her wishes. She almost makes it sound like she regrets leaving the reel in the studio, as if it were a flippant mistake on her part. She seems to quickly gloss over any feelings of ill will towards the memory, which becomes a recurring theme of the documentary.
Over the rest of the first two episodes, Janet Jackson details a major crux of her career that we know well. Now that she’s pursuing a recording career of her own, she’s ready to step outside the Jackson family shadow, seeking independence, control and the chance to be seen by the public for something other than her lineage. This is particularly complicated by Michael Jackson’s immense solo success. With Thriller, pop’s biggest-selling star is reborn, not only creating an icy dynamic between him and his family but also making it difficult for Janet to promote anything without having to discuss him or his sudden and often perplexing rock star lifestyle.
The more interesting parts of the documentary emerge from her honest portrayals of her first two marriages. Both her ex-husbands James DeBarge and René Elizondo appear in the film, reflecting on their time with Jackson.
Her troubled relationship with DeBarge is particularly moving: They were lifelong friends who found solace in each other as their families navigated fame. They married when Janet was 18, in secret. Eventually it was annulled: DeBarge struggled with cocaine addiction, often leaving Janet on her own or she was forced him pick up the pieces of his life as he and his brothers watched their careers crumble.
Elizondo and Jackson also married in secret, and over their decade-long relationship, the dancer and director filmed their time together on VHS. The documentary features a lot of that intimate footage, showing a happy couple tour the world together as one of them finally lives out her dream of being a megastar on her own terms, of her own volition.
Michael looms heavy over both parts of Night One, an imposing figure on his little sister’s life even as they begin to grow estranged. The preview for Night Two sees that tension coming to a head, as Michael’s public image becomes tarnished by his various eccentricities and the sexual abuse allegations from young kids who visited Neverland Ranch.
And yet, even with all the hours of detail, Janet Jackson still feels an arm’s length away. We are getting her story, but we are not getting any closer to the mystery of who she is or how she felt navigating a complicated life as one of the most famous stars in music history. The product is as well-produced as any one of her albums, a carefully manicured look at a pop icon who is saving the real soul-searching for somewhere off-camera. Painful moments are shuffled in the midst of massive career wins, as if the latter couldn’t possibly exist without the other. Troubling figures whose actions and lives often affected her own are given nothing more than a brief explanation before being swept under the rug of her life entirely.
Night Two of the “event” promises a host of big moments to unwrap. Her brother’s assault allegations dominated much of the Nineties, which we have just barely scratched the surface of in the documentary so far. Plus, the series promises a look at the infamous Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.” (There have been reports that Justin Timberlake will make an appearance as well.)
The second half could prove to be explosive, or it could simply glaze over the decades of Janet Jackson lore that have often left her image and career often in a tailspin, caused often by forces beyond her control. For better or for worse, Janet Jackson puts the star back in the drivers seat, and there’s no way she wants to detour into the unknown.