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Film, Reviews

Spike Lee’s ‘Off the Wall’ Documentary Portrays Michael Jackson’s Shift from Teen Idol to King of Pop

The film is a reverent chronicle of Jackson's trajectory to stardom as a solo artist

off the wall spike lee

There’s a revealing moment early in Spike Lee’s documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall where Michael is onstage with his brothers late in their career as the Jackson 5. The teenaged group is heard debating whether to perform one of their childhood hits when Michael addresses the audience. “I’ll do the old stuff for you, okay?” he tells the crowd. “But I’m doin’ it for you, I’m not doin’ it for them, I’m doin’ it for you.” It’s a rebellious moment that’s indicative of Michael’s urge for independence and also of his immense devotion to his audience (which would remain a constant throughout his career).

Spike Lee’s film is a reverent portrayal of this revolutionary period in Michael’s life: the chrysalis stage when he transformed from childhood Motown star to the global icon who rewrote pop history with Off the Wall and the cultural juggernaut Thriller. Jackson’s life was so dense with music and so rife with controversy that you could probably make a film about any period and have plenty to chew on. Mr. Lee has chosen a relatively innocent period before the spotlight of fame was at its brightest; nonetheless, the director seems to make a conscious decision to focus on the musical career. Only a few scant elements of Michael’s personal life are gleaned through the prism of his work. For example, there’s ‘Ben,’ the 1972 Golden Globe-winning song (from a film of the same name) in which Michael sings to a dead rat. In the context of Michael’s life, the song feels like eery foreshadowing of his later reputation as an eccentric, and of his “companion animal,” the chimpanzee Bubbles.

The film’s respectful depiction of Jackson’s trajectory towards Off the Wall is potent. The viewer is shown an artist blessed with both inconceivable talent and what Quincy Jones calls “uncanny-type discipline.” Jackson’s drive to succeed (he writes a litany of goals in his quest to outdo the greats) is matched only by his inner creative furnace. Producer Bobby Columby recalls a moment when Michael is recording in a vocal booth. The star abruptly flings off his headphones and rushes into the hallway because he has an uncontrollable urge to dance. Michael danced in the hallway, telling Columby, “I gotta get this out.”

Lee flexes his industry muscle by bringing an astounding array of stars, collaborators and Jackson family members to the screen for comment. The film includes interviews with David Byrne, Mark Ronson, the Weeknd, Quincy Jones and many, many more.

Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall is a remarkable portrait of the King of Pop’s ascent to solo greatness. The film is now available for rent.

off the wall spike lee

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