In Spike Lee’s documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, he explores the beginnings of Jackson’s career with his brothers in the Jackson 5 and taps into the nostalgia that continues to linger around his breakthrough album. It’s Lee’s second movie about the King of Pop, and follows a 2012 a documentary on the making of Bad.
When Michael didn’t win the Grammys he thought he should have won, it’s like ‘Alright, I got something for yo ass.’ And that was Thriller
Part of the Off the Wall story, which debuts on Showtime February 5 (and will be included in a February 26 re-release of the album), is how it didn’t get its proper due. When Epic Records released it on August 7, 1979, it yielded two No. 1 disco-boogie hits, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You.”
But at the 1980 Grammy Awards, Jackson wasn’t nominated for any of the night’s major prizes such as Album of the Year, (won by Billy Joel for 52nd Street), and Song of the Year (claimed by the Doobie Brothers for “What a Fool Believes”). Despite his chart success and platinum sales, Jackson was virtually ghettoized to the R&B wing, where he claimed Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
“When Michael didn’t win the Grammys he thought he should have won, it’s like ‘Alright, motherfuckers. I got something for yo ass.’ And that was Thriller,” Lee told Billboard. “Let’s not get it twisted: Michael was competitive.”
Spike Lee and Music
Music has been an integral part of Lee’s work since his debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It, which memorably featured a jazz soundtrack composed by his father, bassist Bill Lee. He’s often displayed a nuanced and critical perspective — Mo ‘Better Blues, his 1991 tale about New York’s contemporary jazz scene, didn’t pull punches when it came to depicting the main character’s infidelities.
Contrary to Lee’s reputation as a firebrand, however, he has celebrated Jackson’s career wholeheartedly and without qualification. It’s partly out of friendship: Lee directed the video for “They Don’t Care About Us,” and Jackson contributed one of his most underrated ballads, “On the Line,” to Lee’s 1996 film about the Million Man March, Get on the Bus.
Off the Wall reveals Jackson’s incandescent strengths — tt features the most joyous, and least complicated, performance of his solo career
“Every year a new generation is discovering Michael Jackson, and their introduction to Michael Jackson might be from all the other stuff that was happening, not his music,” Lee told the Daily Beast in reference to all the scandals that plagued the singer before his death in 2009. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
‘Off the Wall’: A Stepping Stone to World Domination
Sonically, Off the Wall is suited for a focus on Jackson’s incandescent strengths. It features the most joyous and least complicated performance of his solo career. You can hear the contrasts between his vocals here, and the tougher, more purposeful approach he’d adopt on Thriller.
The pillowy falsetto at the center of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” a clear nod to Michael McDonald of The Doobie Brothers’ famously wintry voice, was nowhere to be found years later. Jackson may have collaborated with Paul McCartney on “The Girl Is Mine,” Thriller’s cloying, oft-maligned first single. But on Off the Wall’s soft pop number “Girlfriend,” he simply covers one of McCartney’s Wings tunes and arguably delivers a superior, definitive version. Everything about Off the Wall is relatively smaller and more intimate, which is part of its enduring appeal.
One of the highlights is seeing how thrilled audiences are watching Jackson’s ascent to mega-stardom
Meanwhile, Jackson remained the face of the Jacksons. In 1978, the quintet released Destiny, a hard-earned platinum breakthrough after an acrimonious switch from Motown to Epic Records in 1975 briefly curtailed their popularity.
The album’s slick disco pop anticipated Off the Wall. In fact, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” which Jackson wrote, sounds like a sequel to the hit he wrote with brother Randy for Destiny, “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).” By the fall of 1980, Michael returned to his group for another platinum hit, Triumph, suggesting to listeners at the time that Off the Wall was merely a great side project, not a stepping-stone to future world domination.
One of the highlights of Michael Jackson’s Journey is its scenes from the Jackson’s 1981 Triumph tour, and how thrilled audiences are at watching Jackson’s ascent to unparalleled mega-stardom.
You can hear that mania on the group’s subsequent Live album. As Jackson and his brothers harmonize on “I’ll Be There,” he improvises a marvelous vocal patter. “Can you feel it?” he growls as the crowd screams with delight. “I think I wanna rock!”
The album’s genesis lay in the 1978 movie The Wiz, a critical and commercial disaster that Jackson’s acclaimed turn as the Scarecrow couldn’t save. He formed a bond with its soundtrack producer, Quincy Jones, that laid the groundwork for his first solo project since 1975’s poor-selling Forever, Michael.
One of the beautiful things about Jackson is how he appeals to our gentler selves
Jones himself was undergoing a major evolution. Once a swing bandleader best known for working with Frank Sinatra, Jones had begun making fusion albums, and by the late ‘70s he was scoring hits such as “Stuff Like That.” His 1981 platinum album The Dude is a veritable test-run for the mélange of R&B and pop we’d experience on Thriller.
Jones enlisted top jazz and rock session musicians like keyboardist George Duke, guitarist Phil Upchurch, and backing vocalist Patti Austin. Sheila Escovedo, who’d find fame in 1984 with The Glamorous Life made an uncredited contribution to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” and you can hear her percussion tapping away as the song fades at the end. Steve Porcaro of Toto appears as a keyboardist, and he’d later co-write “Human Nature” with Jackson. His longtime mentor, Stevie Wonder, co-wrote “I Can’t Help It.” Louis Johnson, one-half of Jones protégés The Brothers Johnson, co-wrote “Get on the Floor.”
Jackson’s Staying Power
The prevailing mood of Off the Wall is boyish charm and a soft, shyly expressed sensuality. When Jackson sings, “Life ain’t so bad at all/When you’re living off the wall,” he could be addressing himself as well as us. At the end of the ballad “She’s Out of My Life,” he breaks down and cries, and his weeping is audible.
One of the beautiful things about Jackson is how he appeals to our gentler selves, and conveys the possibilities of speaking out, of breaking out of our shells, as a kind of alchemy. “Get on the floor and dance with me,” he sings to us. It’s a kind invitation.
It’s impossible to hear Jackson without visualizing him as he dances onstage and into our hearts. When he sings as he glides across the floor, he makes us believe that anything can happen. Off the Wall may be the purest and least complicated expression of his magical aura, and it was a sign of much more to come.