Spike Lee doing an episode of 'Classic Albums'... but what an album and performer!
When it comes to Spike Lee as a director of documentaries, he is practically untouchable. 4 Little Girls, the two Katrina documentaries and, if one counts it, his 'concert' movies of Original Kings of Comedy, Huey Newton, Passing Strange - the man is a master at getting people comfortable to open up on camera, and to just bring his skills as a storyteller to show why something is SO important. In lessor hands the story of how Michael Jackson made Off the Wall would be informative and probably interesting, up to a point, but perhaps it would get a little too technical and miss the emotion behind the songs (I'm reminded of the many Classic Album documentary episodes out there, like for Who's Next or Metallica's black album and so on and on). With Lee, he gives this story the fullest possible context in a full 110 minutes - how "MJ" (as he decided to call himself, by the way, before any fans) got to make this record, his first as a solo artist, is essential to discover.
It should be said that there are a lot of talking heads here, but what's commendable and great is that Lee doesn't just focus on musicians. There are plenty to go around here, from current people (Questlove gets a lot of time, and no wonder as he is a fantastic person to talk about this subject and album), to Stevie Wonder and Berry Gordy and on and on. But there's also Kobe Bryant, Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, it's about the legacy on people from basketball players to professional dancers to everybody in-between. So while we get the people who talk up Jackson - and why not, it is Michael Jackson at THIS stage of his career, when he had everything to prove in and out of the Jacksons - the clips that Lee gets, from a Jackson 5 cartoon to behind the scenes footage on The Wiz and a blazing-on-all-cylinders concert with MJ and his brothers in 1981, make it an absolute delight.
A lot of the documentary is about process, and how Jackson was someone who in a way was like the Kubrick quote from Nicholson: everyone acknowledged he was the man, and it still underrated him. I almost kind of take him for granted, years after he's passed on and the world's been without a new Jackson record, and yet it's eye-opening when I'm thrown in once again to see what was great about him, as a dancer, as a laser-focused talent in the studio (i.e. perfectionist at most times), as a singer and most of all as a kind of absorber of all of the influences around him (that's the key thing really, that he came as fully formed after a lot of years of practice and going through ballads for rats and so on). This happened in 2009 with the sort of post- mortem doc/concert This Is It, and yet here it's much more illuminating on an entire decade of music and experiences. The sort of thesis of the whole thing becomes as like, Jackson HAD to do something like Off the Wall after going through the entire 70's as a performer and as a FAN of all that was around him.
In other words, the first half is the lead up, with many of the songs that you probably remember, or, perhaps, have possibly forgotten but immediately hear a track like 'Blame it on the Boogie', or even (ashamedly) thought Jackson did on his own and not with his brothers like 'Shake Your Body to the Ground,' and then the second half is a track-by-track breakdown of the album. While it may rush just slightly through the B-side tracks - albeit the highlight of the whole documentary may be a comparison of one particular song to Eddie Murphy's Delirious bit on MJ - it's still mostly comprehensive and engrossing as far as how Jackson, Quincy Jones and those involved (Stevie Wonder!) got to make the tracks to such an impressive point.
Whether you already love the album to death or only know big hits (there are at least four though), this really does make it into such a point that, yeah, go back to listen to the songs again, but like with Jackson in general you may have taken aspects of the songs for granted. Even something as seemingly simple and easy-to-digest like 'Rock With You' (one of the greatest tracks, for me, that he ever made) gets deeper with just the *sound* of it all.
It's an incredibly impressive documentary that will be like revisiting an old friend for the fans, and is THE thing to see if you want to know what else he did aside from Thriller and Bad (or think he was just some, you know, weirdo or something).
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