Spike Lee’s new documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall, captivatingly tracks the evolution of the singer from childhood through to world-conquering superstar. I was fortunate to know and work with Michael, and like Lee, would like to shed some light upon the man behind the fame.
First, a little background info: I’m a BIG fan of Michael Jackson and have been since I saw him moonwalking for the first time on TV during Motown’s 25th Anniversary TV Special in 1983.
Five years later I published the UK’s first Michael Jackson fanzine, and what followed was an amazing 21-year roller coaster ride which saw me write a best selling book – Michael Jackson: The Visual Documentary, exclusive interviews, the privilege of watching Michael work in the studio producing the albums Dangerous and HIStory, travelling on his world tours, numerous trips to his magical home Neverland, and the West End musical Thriller Live that I created.
I should also mention that Off The Wall is one of my favourite albums of all-time, alongside Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of… However, I will honestly say, that despite all of the above this film brought new light and inspiration to even my overly filled Jacksonesque life.
Off The Wall, was released in August 1979 on the eve of Michael’s 21st birthday, and it introduced the world to him as a mature solo recording artist. Previously he had been known as the lead of The Jacksons, who themselves had just reignited their careers with the hit song Shake Your Body Down (To The Ground), and before that as the cute 11-year old kid who with The Jackson Five had four consecutive number ones with their first four releases.
We’ve heard before what a perfectionist Michael Jackson was, but that message is really driven home throughout Lee’s documentary as we are told about his passion to learn and become better. In one heartfelt moment a handwritten letter by Michael dated 6th November 1979 is read out on screen. In it he says how he no longer wishes to be remembered as the kid that sang ABC and I Want You Back. That he will reinvent himself. He will become an incredible actor, dancer and singer. He will do no interviews. He will become magic. That he must have the most incredible training system. He will look back on the whole world of entertainment and perfect it!
They were quite big statements for a 21-year old, but when you look at the album that followed (Thriller) you’d have to say that Michael Jackson had an unbelievable vision that he truly fulfilled.
For my stage show, Thriller Live, director, Gary Lloyd recreates the look and feel of Studio 54, a wild New York Nightclub popular in the late 70s. In the documentary, we see Michael as a regular guest at the club, which he describes as “escapism”, also frequented by other A-list celebs such as Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Liza Minnelli and David Bowie to name but a few.
I’ve always felt that this period in Michael’s life was his real awakening, and Studio 54 gave him the creative juices to pen the songs Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Working Day And Night, and Get On The Floor. I dare you to keep still whilst listening to the funk of the latter song, co-written by bass guitarist Louis Johnson. The music in Thriller Live, played each night by six musicians, was arranged by Musical Director, John Maher. He states, having played almost 3,000 shows in the West End, that the Disco section of the show is the bands absolute favourite, and something they never get tired of.
And when you hear the album you can see why. It’s a musician dream, perfectly orchestrated by the maestro that is Quincy Jones. When Michael and ‘Q’ produced Off The Wall, they had some of the best talent around putting down the sounds live in the studio. There’s real brass, bass and percussion that gives the album an authentic feel of quality and craftsmanship. Lee via a series of candid talking heads takes us through the album’s creation and beyond as he interviews those who were present such as keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, and Sound Engineer, Bruce Swedien through to the stars of today who the album has inspired including Pharrell Williams, The Weeknd and Mark Ronson.
People often ask me what was Michael like, and I answer truthfully, saying that he was a big kid at heart who was a lot of fun with a huge memorable smile. But when it came to his work he was very serious. Wanting the very best. Most of the stories you read in the press were not true. For example, they once said he had bought a £10 million castle in France. However, when I was at his Neverland ranch, he showed me the castle in question and it was just a replica model!
Then there was a trip we had to Budapest in 1994. Michael, along with Lisa Marie-Presley, was visiting a children’s hospital, handing out gifts and toys. I was fortunate to be the only ‘media’ allowed to accompany them, and I was delighted to help in giving the gifts to some of the sick kids. However the sceptical press suggested the trip was nothing more than a publicity stunt. What they didn’t see was the moving moment when Michael brought a smile to the face of a dying girl who had lain motionless and silent for weeks. Her mother, at her side in constant vigil, broke down in tears as her daughter reached out and touched Michael’s hand.
Michael was often mocked by the press, and he despised the ‘Wacko Jacko’ tag, that the British redtops had labeled him with. During an interview in 1998, Michael said to me:
The tabloids are a bunch of trash. I think there should be a way to destroy them. We should create a big burning, like in the stadiums around the world – pile them all together! You remember how they used to do the disco records, and just create a burning, to make people aware. It’s such an intrusion. It’s a horrible thing. They hunt you, and it’s terrible. It creates such ugliness. They never think about how the person feels about what they are writing.
There is a lot of other gossip one could discuss throughout Michael’s career, but Spike Lee’s documentary I am glad to say just focuses, like Thriller Live, on the music. It reminds us what a talent Michael Jackson was, and it shows us that hard work is one of the most important keys to whatever we want to achieve in life.
The documentary reminded me once again, what a great entertainer Michael was, how lucky I was to have known him, and how nobody should ever rest on their laurels, because there’s always more you can do.
In the words of MJ, “Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough!”