When a person is universally acknowledged as one of the truly untouchable legends in their field, the individual milestones in their journey that led them to reaching such great heights can often be overshadowed by whatever singular event is seen as their mountaintop moment. Such is the case with Michael Jackson and his record-breaking, culture-changing 1982 album Thriller. However, as is so eloquently and explicitely noted in Spike Lee's new documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, "there would be no Thriller without Off the Wall."
When it was originally released in 1979, Off the Wall was more than just Jackson's first true debut studio album, for all intents and purposes it was his coming out party. While he certainly had some standout solo moments sprinkled throughout the years prior to Off the Wall's release, the album proved to be Jackson's official step away from his work with his brothers and their impressive catalog with Motown Records and into his own well-deserved spotlight. With four of the album's singles ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Rock With You," "Off the Wall," and "She's Out of My Life") hitting the Billboard Top 10, album sales hitting 6 million in the U.S. alone in its first year, and a Grammy Award win for Best R&B Male Vocal, it's safe to say that the world seemed to be ready and waiting for Jackson's transformation from sugar-sweet child phenom to unparalleled global pop star.
The story of how that transformation played out in Jackson's life is what Lee so expertly lays out in Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. Capturing the whirlwind of activity and success that swirled around The Jackson Five during their time on Motown Records, Lee's documentary chronicles both the high standards of Motown's production methods and also the high expectations placed on the five brothers from Gary, Indiana. As if a prophetic foretaste of what was to come, their first four singles for Motown ("I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save," and "I'll Be There") all hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard R&B charts in 1969 and 1970. Their successes for Motown continued throughout the early-to-mid 70s, but the desire of the brothers to have more creative control (and a more lucrative royalty deal) lead them to leave Motown for CBS/Epic in 1975. Under the slightly altered moniker of The Jacksons (along with a Randy-for-Jermaine swap out due to Jermaine's father-in-law being Motown founder Berry Gordy), the brothers recorded their CBS/Epic debut with Philly International legends Gamble & Huff. After recording three albums for CBS/Epic with his brothers, Michael officially went solo and released Off the Wall in 1979.
What Lee does so well in Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall is the way he highlights what Michael was learning and putting into practice throughout his time on Motown. Using archived footage and modern-day interviews to weave the Michael-as-student narrative, the audience is told about how the adolescent Michael would question the Motown hit makers about the hows and whys of their songwriting, how he would meticulously watch performers like Diana Ross, Sammie Davis, Jr., and Jackie Wilson from the wings of the stage, and how he would sit in the long, boring mixing sessions with Berry Gordy and just soak it all in. Interviews with Gordy, Motown exec Suzanne de Passe, Motown songwriter Valerie Simpson, and more tell story after story of Michael's impressive, self-imposed apprenticeship.
The second half of the documentary deals with the actual writing and recording of Jackson's Off the Wall album, with the Michael-as-student thread still being developed, as well as enhanced. Along with a star-studded cast of characters - Quincy Jones as producer, Stevie Wonder and David Foster as songwriters ("I Can't Help It" and "It's the Falling In Love," respectively), Heatwave's Rod Temperton (who would go on to work with Michael again on Thriller) as a major contributor - Michael crafted Off the Wall into a R&B-dance-pop masterpiece that had just enough disco influences to be current for his 1979 audience and just enough forward-leaning flourishes to keep his audiences (and the rest of the music world) chasing him for the next couple of decades. While it is still overshadowed by the cultural juggernaut that is Thriller, it is important to note that Off the Wall not only paved the way for that album, but has also sold over 30 million copies worldwide (close to 10x Platinum in the U.S. alone) in its own right.
Lee not only does a fantastic job of showcasing Michael's Midas talent, unrelenting hard work, and uncompromising vision, but as a documentarian he has compiled a wonderful batch of new interviews with musicians like Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Pharrell, David Byrne, Mark Ronson, John Legend, The Weeknd, and Esperanza Spaulding, as well as cultural icons like Kobe Bryant, Lee Daniels, L.A. Reid, dream hampton, Rosie Perez, and more. From a pop cultural perspective, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall is a truly important and very well-done piece of musical history journalism. By analytically looking at Jackson's unique mix of talent, work ethic, and imagination, Lee helps to frame the magic and mystery of Jackson's extended otherworldly output, a feat even more impressive when focusing on just the pre-Thriller years. Although Jackson was only 20 when he recorded Off the Wall, he was in the rare position of already being a music industry veteran but still not-quite-yet the incendiary superstar he would become in the years following its release, an extraordinary situation that is stunningly illuminated in Lee's Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall.