It was a bizarrely mellow song for a trashy exploitation film about killer rats, but “Ben,” the theme from Ben, played a critical role establishing Michael Jackson’s identity outside the Jackson 5. His early solo years are often overlooked by the media that prefers either the Motown Moppet or the Moonwalking glory years. Yet, hipper fans have a special fondness for his late 1970s music. Spike Lee returns to documentary filmmaking with the awkwardly titled Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in advance of its early February premiere on Showtime.
In a way, these years are the missing link between the two indelible Michael Jacksons we have in our mind’s eye. There are transitional, but the music was confident. In fact, this is probably the Jackson we should try to remember. Regardless of his shifting appearance and unfortunate media kerfuffles, Jackson was more or less playing a persona after the runaway success of Thriller. However, he seems really real in the archival interviews segments Lee assembles.
It is also cool to hear Jackson pay tribute to the masters who came before him, such as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis, Jr., and even Duke Ellington. Quincy Jones also remembers their long and fruitful association, starting with their work on the film adaptation of The Wiz. Lee talks to a lot of the studio guys, who were part of the process, including Bobby Colomby (Jaco Patorius’s producer), arranger Greg Phillinganes, and engineer Bruce Swedien. Getting their perspective helps broaden our appreciation for Jackson as an artist and a professional. Appropriately, Berry Gordy is also afforded plenty of time to talk about their work together. Regardless what you think of the Motown founder, you just can’t tell the story without him.
As a documentary, MJ’s Journey is pretty conventional stuff, largely alternating between talking heads and performance clips. However, there are a few moments of editorial slyness, like Charleston Heston introducing Jackson’s performance of “Ben” at the Academy Awards. Frankly, the doc just doesn’t have enough clips of the rats.