One reason — maybe the only reason — to watch all five hours of The Jacksons: An American Dream would be to see how the hell ABC is going to turn the story of one of show business’ more fractious and eccentric clans into a made-for-TV, family-valued fairy tale. Where, I wondered, would Bubbles the chimp fit into the saga?
It turns out that the network has accomplished its task just as you might expect: by dodging the awkward stuff. Oh, Bubbles is here, dangling morosely from Michael Jackson’s shoulder in the miniseries’ closing minutes, but it’s a Michael who — as deftly played in the singer’s adult years by Wylie Draper — doesn’t come close to the jeweled-gloved, plastic-surgeried, medusa-haired, monosyllabic, self-proclaimed King of Pop we know and cannot bring ourselves to love. To do Michael justice, The Jacksons would have had to summon up his immense talent and then show us how it has dissipated into oddball self-indulgence. And that, in TV-movie terms, would be unacceptable — a downer.
So The Jacksons bends and twists the details of the Jackson family story to fit the conventions of a celebratory television biopic, presenting Michael and his siblings as sweet-tempered saints bedeviled by a single villain: their father. We are told here that in the process of developing the act, initially called the Jackson 5, Joe Jackson (portrayed by Welcome Back, Kotter‘s Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs) beat the kids and made them rehearse much too hard. In fact, the Joe depicted in The Jacksons is something more than a world-class control freak. At one point, he grabs his then-teenage daughter Rebbie by the throat and starts squeezing. Why? Because she has expressed a desire to start dating.
It’s a measure of Jacobs’ skill that he manages to push Joe beyond the rampaging monster described in the script, written by Joyce Eliason (Small Sacrifices). The Jacksons‘ version of the family patriarch isn’t a scandalous revelation — we’ve heard about Joe’s abusiveness from interviews and books by any number of the Jackson children. Jacobs almost convinces us that Joe’s violence was a form of tough love — he walloped the kids because he wanted them to triumph over the poverty of their Gary, Ind., upbringing. But the actor can’t do much about the stiff dialogue in nearly every scene between Joe and his wife, Katherine (Angela Bassett), who is made to seem blandly noble and nothing more.
Because the miniseries covers the Jacksons from infancy to adulthood, at least two, and often three, actors play each of the nine siblings. (Some offspring get short shrift; don’t bother tuning in if you’re a Rebbie, La Toya, Janet, or Randy fan.) All do excellent jobs of capturing the Jacksons’ whizzing dance moves, and Draper is fairly amazing in the way he has gotten down not only Michael’s gestures but also his soft voice and shy yet curious manner.
But to make sense of the way The Jacksons is structured — heavy emphasis on the early years, very fuzzy on anything after about 1980 — you have to realize that this movie was overseen, along with co-executive producer Stan Margulies (Roots), by Suzanne de Passe. These days de Passe is best known as a class-act producer whose credits include Lonesome Dove, but for years she was an executive at Motown Records, helping to focus Motown founder Berry Gordy’s vision of the company as a fountainhead of great soul music and black capitalism.
Accordingly, the Jacksons’ Motown years receive lots of airtime; in an expansive performance, Billy Dee Williams plays Gordy as a genial papa bear. (De Passe herself is played by Vanessa Williams.) In 1975, however, the Jacksons left Motown, seeking greater creative independence at CBS’ Epic Records. Around that time, Michael abandoned his brothers to make solo records for Epic, including the megaselling Thriller in 1982, yet this phenomenon — the commercial high point of Michael’s life — is dealt with merely in passing.
The Jacksons concludes in 1984, with the brothers’ Victory tour, presented as the pinnacle of the group’s achievements rather than as what it really was — a poorly conceived tour with ticket-price gouging that added little to the Jacksons’ reputation. Far from being the warm reunion depicted here, many reports had it that Michael didn’t even want to do the tour but relented as a favor to his family, to jump-start his brothers’ sagging careers.
The Jacksons is filled with first-rate acting, but it fails to capture the brash energy behind the first Jackson 5 hits like ”I Want You Back” and ”ABC,” and it studiously avoids the complex reality of the act’s later years. No wonder the chimp playing Bubbles looks so bemused. C+