What is Lee Daniels doing here?
In a 93-minute feature film packed with everyone from Michael Jackson's relatives to recording engineers who worked on only one of his albums, the co-creator of "Empire" is the only talking head unable to justify his time on screen. And considering the likes of Kobe Bryant, Stevie Wonder, Joel Schumacher and even Spike Lee (unable to stay behind the camera in his own film) make memorable appearances, his inexplicable inclusion speaks to what's really, overall, a focused effort with honed storytelling, dedicated to a very specific time period in Jackson's fascinating life.
Picking up from when and why he was such a magnetic presence in the Jackson 5, "Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall" builds itself around details meant to not only make audiences remember, but make them appreciate what a true pop star is capable of. Descriptive adjectives are thrown around rapidly, but it's the passion in the speakers' voices that stands out. Katherine Jackson, Michael's mother, pops up a number of times with contextual tidbits relevant to Jackson's motivations, and Lee uses her descriptions (and others') as launching pads into more topical material.
While no Spike Lee joint would be complete without a reminder of America's racial prejudice, the topic is tastefully and appropriately incorporated this time 'round. A few knowledgeable guests make note that the press and fans alike were quick to give Jackson credit for his "natural abilities," while white artists would be worshiped for their talent and effort equally. To hammer home the point, Lee brings in Kobe Bryant — who the director chronicled in another solid doc, "Kobe Doin' Work" — to parallel Jackson's relentless pursuit of perfection as a dancer, singer and musician with the basketball star's chase to match another MJ — Michael Jordan. Bryant's story emphasizes the work that Jackson put into making himself the true King of Pop and serves as a stark reminder of why it's important to pay attention to cultural keywords in a racial context.
The film also broaches how the music biz has changed since Jackson helped build it into what it is today, but what's truly striking about the doc is how well it flows not only from point to point, but from speaker to speaker. Lee astutely places supporting statements next to each other, slowly building his case for the relevance of this era in MJ's life, and sometimes he even uses historical footage of a speaker to set up what that same person is saying today. Lee also goes to great lengths to give each speaker the credit they deserve by repeatedly citing their — often lengthy — list of accolades and accomplishments next to their name, rather than just flashing it once on their first appearance and leaving it at that.
And the careful selection of subjects is truly remarkable. In addition to surviving members of the Jackson family, Lee spoke with or found interviews featuring Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly, John Legend, Stevie Wonder and so, so many producers, engineers and songwriters who have an intimate knowledge and unmatched devotion to the music being discussed. It's not hard to imagine how easy it was for Lee to grab the big names on the above list considering his own stature in the film world (and black community at large), but going the extra mile to dig up some of these unheralded and unknown voices with so much to say truly makes the doc stand out.
And then, of course, there's Michael himself. Sure, there's some gleeful footage of Jackson's remarkable dance moves and quite a few performances that wow, but you can tell Lee isn't just interested in recreating concerts. Rather than being the star of the show, Jackson seems to hover around the perimeter of the picture; a voice popping in to lend credence to an argument or remind audiences of what he was trying to do. It works incredibly well. By allowing so many personalities to speak for him and from gathering up not only a large sample size but one with such fascinating knowledge of the man of the hour, Lee makes the "Journey" so much more than a tribute to Jackson. It's a monument to his significance.
But really, why is Lee Daniels in this doc? His biggest contribution is an "embarrassing" confession that he danced to an old MJ song by himself. Who hasn't? Why does that matter? We'll never know, but "Journey From Motown to Off the Wall" makes sure we'll never ask the same question about MJ himself.