“The first bars of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” are among the most iconic sounds in 20th century pop — that teasing entry beat, those half-whispered Stars Wars-esque opening lyrics (“The force, it’s got a lot of power”) and that signature falsetto “Woooh!” that uncorks a whole mess of infectious funk from the horns and percussion. Spike Lee takes us back to the first time we heard that classic in Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall, which continues the director’s admirable bid to reclaim the legacy of an innovative artist whose genius was often unfairly overshadowed in his later years by tabloid attention.
Following its Sundance premiere, the documentary begins airing Feb. 5 on Showtime, and no doubt will be devoured by fans who grew up on Motown, and on the decade of artistic apotheosis that followed Jackson’s departure to CBS Records. It’s also an equally entertaining companion piece to Bad 25, Lee’s 2012 film that marked the quarter-century anniversary of Jackson’s album of that name.
Lee’s interest in Jackson goes beyond an appreciation of his music to acknowledge what an important figure the performer remains in black culture, bridging the divide that continued to separate many black artists from mainstream acceptance. It’s startling to be reminded that the music business was still tacitly segregated at that time, and despite Off the Wall selling six million copies in its first year alone, Jackson’s awards recognition was confined to the black R&B categories.
The director’s access is impressive. He talks to fellow artists, producers, songwriters, engineers and arrangers, as well as select Jackson family members (both parents, two brothers) and Motown godfather Berry Gordy. Throughout, there are illuminating insights into how a great pop song is built. There’s notably incisive commentary from Questlove, Mark Ronson and Philadelphia hitmakers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, while a number of contemporary artists acknowledge their deep debt to Jackson. Pharrell Williams says, “My music would not be here without that record,” while The Weeknd confesses, “I found my falsetto because of Off the Wall…”