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Spike Lee On Michael Jackson's Evolution From Child Star To 'Off The Wall'

Spike Lee's new documentary charts the King of Pop's journey from child stardom to early fame as a solo act.
Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Spike Lee's new documentary charts the King of Pop's journey from child stardom to early fame as a solo act.

Tonight, Showtime presents a new documentary on the late pop star Michael Jackson, called Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. Director Spike Lee explores his journey from child prodigy to recording his best-selling 1979 album.It's the second in what Lee hopes will be a trilogy of films dedicated to Jackson's musical legacy.

Off the Wall was Michael Jackson's first solo album as an adult.

"That's the first time we heard that iconic yell," says musician Questlove. "That's his 'Free at last/ free at last.' "

Questlove is one of many who reflect on Jackson's hit dance songs and R&B ballads from that album.

Spike Lee's documentary traces Jackson's journey from being a child star with the Jackson 5 at Motown to becoming a superstar solo act with Epic Records.

Michael Jackson's evolution to being the confident 20-year-old heard in Off the Wall is all here in the film. It includes archival recordings from TV shows and private interviews with the soft-spoken star at his home.

Jackson is shown learning from his idols: Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis Jr., Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. There's rarely seen footage of Jackson tap dancing with the legendary Nicholas brothers. And a host of people, from actress Rosie Perez to basketball star Kobe Bryant, talk about how Jackson's perfectionism inspired them.

Michael Jackson died after an overdose, just before he turned 51, on the eve of his "This Is It" tour. With this film, his estate is preserving his legacy, says co-executor John Branca.

"We are approached constantly from all over the world, from people wanting to do Michael Jackson projects," Branca says. "But it's more important to say no than it is to say yes. We just want to be very selective. We thought Spike was the ideal choice for director. He's very passionate."

The estate first hired Spike Lee to direct a documentary on Jackson's album Bad. A few weeks ago, before the Sundance Film festival premiere of this new film, Lee said he didn't want to touch on anything negative surrounding Jackson's life or death.

"I told them from the get-go," Lee says, "we were going to focus on the music: his genius, the dance, the songwriting. All that other stuff, we're not dealing with. That's for somebody else to do. Not me. I'm not doing it."

Lee directed Jackson's music videos for his 1996 song "They Don't Care About Us." And he's hosted several block parties in Brooklyn to celebrate the King of Pop.

"Michael is alive, because his music is still here," Lee says. "And every year a new generation is introduced to MJ."

Every time Michael Jackson sang the song "She's Out of My Life," he cried, Quincy Jones recalls in the documentary. He produced Off the Wall. Three years later, in 1983, Jackson recorded Thriller, which won eight Grammys and remains the best-selling album of all time.

Spike Lee says he hopes to be able to chronicle that in his third Michael Jackson documentary.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.