Spike Lee Honors “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to ‘Off The Wall'” in a New Documentary

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Over six years after his death, Michael Jackson remains the biggest selling artist in the history of music. It’s been a month since Billboard announced that his signature work, Thriller, had broken yet another record: 30 million copies sold in the U.S., alone, earning Jackson his 30th platinum album for that work.  To date, Thriller has sold over 100 million copies worldwide.  Because of the enormity of Thriller, Jackson’s previous release Off The Wall is often overlooked, even though it was well received and reviewed.

Next month, Sony Music will reissue “Off The Wall,” Jackson’s first solo release for Epic, that will be 35 years old. Timed with this release is a new Spike Lee documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall.  The documentary looks at the Jackson 5’s final years with Motown, the group’s reinvention as The Jacksons (sans Jermaine and brother Randy taking his spot) upon signing with CBS (now Sony) up through Jackson’s recording of Off The Wall and it’s impact on music and the artist who look to him for inspiration.  The documentary will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24 and air nationally on Showtime on February 5th. Sony’s remastered reissue will be available for purchase on February 26th.  A DVD of the documentary will come with the reissue CD.  

Off The Wall is the start of what many musicologists describe as Jackson’s “classic period,” and very similar to Stevie Wonder’s classic period, 1972-1976.  In this era, they note Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad, Dangerous and HIStory as classic works that exemplify Jackson’s emergence as the reigning “King of Pop,” a moniker he rightfully earned in the mid-eighties that recognizes both his record shattering album sales and innovation when it comes to the craft of musicianship; a craft that he was then able to translate to the visual representations of his music through a series of what he called “short films.”

This will be Lee’s second documentary about Michael Jackson. In 2012, Lee directed  Bad 25 to commemorate that album’s 25th anniversary. Lee also directed Jackson’s video “They Don’t Care About Us.”  Prior to his death, there was bad blood between Michael Jackson and Sony, however, he remained friendly with Spike Lee and was a fan of his work.

Among those interviewed for Lee’s documentary were Katherine and Joseph Jackson, Jackie Jackson, Marlon Jackson, Misty Copeland, John Legend, Questlove (of The Roots and Jimmy Fallon’s late night show), L.A. Reid, Kobe Bryant, The Weeknd, and Pharrell.

With the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trending on Twitter for the second year in a row due to the exclusion of works that feature black directors and actors as nominees, some are hoping that this documentary and one on Maya Angelou, who wrote the poem We Had Him for Jackson’s memorial, will make an appearance in next year’s batch of nominees.

Off The Wall was released in August of 1979 and sold over 20 million copies.  It included the top 10 hits “Rock With You,” “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Workin’ Day And Night,” and “She’s Out Of My Life.”  Produced by Quincy Jones (whom Jackson met while filming The Wiz in 1977), Off The Wall had songs penned by Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Jackson, himself. Although it marks the beginning of Jackson’s solo work as an adult, it was his fifth studio album.  Prior, he recorded four solo albums for Motown while still a member of the Jackson 5.  The album won three American Music Awards in 1980 and one Grammy despite how popular it was.  Not winning album of the year for his work, Jackson vowed that his next work would not be ignored, and it wasn’t.  Still, what he accomplished at the time with Off The Wall was no small feat, and Lee’s documentary reminds us that Michael Jackson’s greatness was not by accident, but by God, sheer will, and an uncommon sense of ambition.  There will never be another like him.

A trailer of the documentary is available for viewing at Discogs.

*As a side note/anecdote: when I was growing up, I struggled with spelling words like received and remembering the rule of “i before e, except after c.” I learned to memorize that phrase by listening to the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” which came out years before I was even born.  To this day, I still do and caught myself doing so as I wrote this article.  So I just want to personally say, “thank you,” Michael Jackson.  You were too good for us and we didn’t deserve you, but I’m glad we had you.

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