“Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall” is overflowing with phenomenal performance footage of the legendary musician from his early days with The Jackson 5 to his adult work on 1979’s Off the Wall. Spike Lee’s documentary on this formative period in Michael Jackson’s career derives its electric, enlivening energy from these fantastic clips. Alas, they’re not enough to alter the fact that this non-fiction effort — premiering at Sundance (and hitting Showtime next month), but primarily produced in conjunction with Jackson’s estate to be packaged with a new reissue of Off the Wall — is merely a nostalgic promotional puff piece meant to look back fondly, and uncritically, at an artist transitioning from a youth-oriented pop fad to the biggest star in the world.
Though Lee makes a brief on-screen appearance, recalling a failed attempt to woo a high school girl with tickets to the Broadway production of “The Wiz,” ‘Journey From Motown to Off the Wall’ could have been made by just about anyone, so generic is its form. Structured chronologically, and assembled as a standard-issue mix of old TV interviews, audio recordings, concert numbers, and new interviews with Jackson’s siblings, illustrious collaborators, and high-profile admirers, the film is doggedly unadventurous. Such conservatism allows Lee to give considerable time to producers and songwriters intent on waxing rhapsodic about crafting songs with Jackson, or detailing the many ways his music helped influence their own work. But for a doc about a groundbreaking artist whose inimitable output and style transcended virtually every musical/social/cultural barrier that existed during the ‘70s, Lee’s traditional approach feels at odds with his trailblazing subject.
Aside from a sharp juxtaposition between The Jackson 5 doing a song-and-dance routine in their formative days and the group re-doing the same moves on their 1981 “Triumph” tour, as well as some shrewd cross-cutting between Jackson performing “She’s Out of My Life” and Eddie Murphy mocking the singer’s weepy emotiveness during a bit from “Delirious,” ‘Journey From Motown to Off the Wall’ plays it so safe as to be somnambulant — except, of course, during the many moments when it simply showcases extended clips of Jackson, both young and old, wowing adoring audiences on-stage. Whether backed by his brothers for classics like “ABC,” or seizing the L.A. Forum’s spotlight for Off the Wall hits like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You,” Jackson’s peerless artistry — his magnetic charisma, snake-like dance moves, or joyously sensual voice — are so potent that the film often coasts by on the awe-inspiring breadth of Jackson’s gifts.
Nonetheless, much of that material (including his great Off the Wall music videos) can be found on YouTube, and in every other respect, ‘Journey From Motown to Off the Wall’ offers up such dull platitudes and anecdotes, as well as such scant historical context or commentary, that it barely justifies its own existence. Via comments from Joe, Katherine and Marlon Jackson, Quincy Jones, Lee Daniels, Questlove, Pharrell, Mark Ronson, L.A. Reid, Rosie Perez and numerous others (including a hilariously out-of-place, full-of-himself Kobe Bryant), the film pays dutiful lip service to Michael’s shyness, his rigorous work ethic (marked by a keen habit of closely studying the great entertainers with whom he came in contact), and his enthusiasm for collaborating and pushing boundaries. Yet those topics are addressed in cursory soundbites that rarely dig beneath the surface. Consequently, seemingly momentous incidents from this period in Jackson’s life — during which he parted ways with Motown to sign with CBS Records, and then split with his brothers to embark on a solo career — are brought up for Wikipedia-style “comprehensiveness” but barely investigated in any substantial way.
The same goes for the film’s attempts to situate Jackson’s ascendency within a larger socio-cultural framework, with the topic raised primarily to further underline the pioneering nature of Off the Wall. As with its early, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background on Michael’s childhood, the film’s track-by-track discussion of the 1979 album sidesteps anything that doesn’t fit with its hagiography. That’s to be expected of a project that, at heart, is just a supplemental feature designed to help sell the CD it accompanies. But it also renders Lee’s documentary something that Jackson’s work — in the ‘60s, ‘70s and afterwards — never was: a routine, disposable afterthought. [C+]