As an artist associated with a particular class of creative output, Spike Lee understands the act of producing for a public that often expects more than it empathizes. With Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, Lee departs from his signature brand of fiction, stitching together a documentary of surface-level reflection on the years leading up to the most overshadowed album, Off the Wall, in the late singer’s early career.
It’s difficult to imagine a world that needs to be reminded of Jackson’s impact, particularly the influence of an album that gave us “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You,” but as Lee explores, it’s possible for an artist to overshadow themselves—and for an audience to take a legacy for granted.
Lee punctuates Journey with archival footage of a young, wide-eyed Jackson musing on his early output and creative prospects. From there, it blossoms into a series of interviews with Jackson’s early collaborators and contemporary figures whom he inspired—particularly Rosie Perez, Misty Copeland, Pharrell, and Kobe Bryant—emphasizing Jackson’s broad influence.
It’s easy to compare Journey to other recent documentaries like Amy and What Happened, Miss Simone?, but where those films dealt in darkness, wisely shies from revisiting the shadows surrounding Jackson’s later years. Still, Journey is not as insightful as Lee’s track record might suggest, paying dutiful respect versus examining at length Jackson’s ability to unite a divided culture through music.
There’s a lasting irony in Journey, with a cast of talking heads discussing the desires of an artist known for being rigorously in control of his own image. Here, Jackson speaks to us only through placement in context at Lee’s discretion, with his carefully incorporated voiceovers detailing his process wafting over archival photos and visuals of early studio sessions, providing little more than featherweight commentary that supports the squeaky-clean portrait Lee has already drawn.
As a result, while Lee is a skilled artist who understands his control over the image of an icon of Jackson’s influence, his hand registers as far too cautious in his unwillingness to dig deeper into the complex, mystifying career of a titan who lived his later years in the shadows of a scrutinizing, judgmental public. We see this especially as Lee, seemingly opting to create a stain-free tribute versus an expository inquest, chooses to pad the film with extended footage of Jackson’s various performances and studio sessions instead of probing his impressive roster of interview subjects—like Jackson’s family, for example—on what made Jackson tick beyond what the pop star chose to share with us in his music. Of course Jackson isn’t here to discuss matters for himself, and Lee’s documentary is, ultimately, enjoyably nostalgic, but says little more than what we already know. B