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

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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. (Courtesy of SHOWTIME)

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 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tonight, Showtime presents a new documentary on the late pop star Michael Jackson. Director Spike Lee explores his journey from child prodigy to recording his best-selling 1979 album, "Off The Wall."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, it's the second in what Lee hopes will be a trilogy of films dedicated to Jackson's musical legacy.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: "Off The Wall" was Michael Jackson's first solo album as an adult.

QUESTLOVE: And that's the first time we heard that iconic yell. That's his free at last, free at last.

DEL BARCO: Musician Questlove is one of the 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 Five at Motown to becoming a superstar solo act with Epic Records. We see a 14-year-old Michael Jackson at the 1973 Academy Awards, singing the theme song from a movie about a rat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) Ben, the two of us need look no more.

DEL BARCO: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MICHAEL JACKSON'S JOURNEY FROM MOTOWN TO OFF THE WALL")

JACKSON: (As character) One of the most important things to being successful is listening and watching and being a good person to work with, easy to work with.

DEL BARCO: Jackson has shown learning from his idols, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis, Jr., Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MICHAEL JACKSON'S JOURNEY FROM MOTOWN TO OFF THE WALL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Michael's dance is based on energy. He moves like electric eel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: There is 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MICHAEL JACKSON'S JOURNEY FROM MOTOWN TO OFF THE WALL")

ROSIE PEREZ: The way he could spin, stop on a dime and point with such intensity, that's the power I'm talking about.

KOBE BRYANT: I mean, he impacted everything for me, absolutely. He impacted my game on the court. He impacted me now to this day and how I learn.

DEL BARCO: 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.

JOHN BRANCA: We are approached constantly from all over the world, from people wanting to do Michael Jackson projects. 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.

DEL BARCO: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPIKE LEE: I told them from the get-go, from the jump street, we're just going to focus on the music, you know, 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.

DEL BARCO: Lee directed Michael 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE: Michael is alive because his music is still here. And every year, a new generation is introduced to MJ.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKSON: (Singing) She's out of my life.

(APPLAUSE)

DEL BARCO: Every time Michael Jackson sang this song, he cried, Quincy Jones recalls in the documentary. He produced the album "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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKSON: (Singing) Life.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.