Around the midway point in Spike Lee’s entertaining new documentary about Michael Jackson’s transformation from child wonder to adult superstar, one of the talking heads reads an astonishing letter that Jackson wrote to himself, quoting: “MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a totally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang ‘ABC,’ ‘I Want You Back.’ I should be a new, incredible actor, singer, dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped in one. I must have the most incredible training system, to dig and dig and dig until I find.”
Lee’s documentary is called Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall, but for Jackson, it’s apparent that it was more a quest than a journey. The 90-minute movie illustrates the singular drive that led Michael Jackson down the road from bubblegum soul to Studio 54 and beyond.
The movie spends little time on the early Jackson 5 recordings, and although Jackson’s parents Joe and Katherine Jackson appear on camera, there are no mentions of the whippings that Michael claimed his father would give to him and his brothers when they didn’t hit their performance marks. It goes largely unsaid in the film, but that desire to emerge from the shadow of his family and become his own man was one of the driving forces behind Michael’s creativity. That and the burgeoning disco scene that developed out of producer/songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International records. After the Jackson 5 left Motown for Epic Records and became The Jacksons, the group released two albums produced by Gamble & Huff that largely fizzled. Self-producing for the first time, the Jacksons’ smash album Destiny (1978) featured the singles “Blame It on the Boogie” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” the latter co-written by Michael and brother Randy, and a monster hit.
That same year, Michael met Quincy Jones on the set of Sidney Lumet’s film of The Wiz. Jones recalls in Lee’s film how Michael would bring his "A" game to each take, even after a day of waiting on set. He could see there was something special, a drive to succeed, that was unlike anyone he had ever met.
In 1979, over Epic Records’ initial objections, Michael hired Quincy Jones to produce Off The Wall, and as Questlove exclaims during Lee’s film, that opening “whooooah!” heard at the beginning of “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” is both Michael’s “free at last” moment and the beginning of the superstar’s signature sound. Lee’s film goes track by track, dissecting the hits, from the proto-“Thriller” cut “Off The Wall” to the silky smooth late-night jam “I Can’t Help It.” Tom Bahler recalls writing “She’s Out Of My Life” from experience, and Rosie Perez remembers asking her girlfriends who it was that made Michael cry on that same song, the album’s lone ballad. Off The Wall holds together as a fantastic R&B/disco album yet doesn’t sound dated. As one musician points out in Lee’s documentary, there are no cheesy hand claps or signature disco sounds, just a crackerjack band in the studio “playing the sh*t out of” the greatest dance songs they could write and find.
I was about 18 months behind the curve in discovering Michael and his brothers when I was growing up, and never heard Off The Wall until after Thriller. My entry into the music of The Jacksons was facilitated by a music video from a later album that was naturally visualized by Michael. Inspired by epic special effects extravaganzas like Star Wars, the video for “Can You Feel It” from the 1981 album Triumph features the brothers as over-the-top demi-gods showering a city with happiness and falling stars. The video featured extensive use of computer animation, and I remember being transfixed by it at age seven, watching American Bandstand after school. I excitedly asked kids the next day if they had seen the same thing. In less than two years, my friend David Hardisty was wearing the red zippered "Beat It" jacket to school, and we were all trying it on and attempting to moonwalk. With Thriller’s genre-bending songs a new era in popular music had begun. But its roots were laid down on the dance floor with Off The Wall in 1979. Perhaps fittingly, the final song on the album is titled “Burn This Disco Out.” What heat!
The New Release
Off The Wall was first reissued in 2001 with two homemade demo recordings from Michael Jackson. Those are sadly missing here, because they reveal just how clearly he saw the final arrangements of “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Working Day And Night.” This new release includes Off The Wall on CD plus Spike Lee’s full documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall, so if you already have the album, the DVD is the main selling point. The film is a terrific treasure trove of rare footage, but much of it is seen in fleeting glimpses. How wonderful it would have been to include more performance footage such as the full-length music videos for songs like “Blame It On the Boogie” and the sensual “Rock With You,” where Michael stands alone in a sparkly outfit, framed by a laser halo, stares into the camera and sells it. Sure you can find the clips on MJ’s YouTube channel, but I’d love to see these videos on my TV screen. It's a missed opportunity for the fans.
Below: an insane production, and memories of American Bandstand.