Like a lot of people, Spike Lee first fell in love with Michael Jackson as a little boy watching the Jackson 5 on television.
“The way they looked—young black boys, big Afros—they could sing, they could dance, all that,” Lee told The Root during an interview at the Sundance Film Festival, where his documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall premiered.
“One of the major things we wanted to do with this documentary is, people got to be reminded; people forget. Like Bad 25, the first documentary [I directed about him], this will also be another reminder of the brilliance of Michael Joseph Jackson. Also, young generations that have been born; they need to remember, too.”
The filmmaker has a point: There is an entire generation that may remember only the end of Jackson’s life, the pedophilia allegations, the multiple cosmetic surgeries and the superstar’s controversial death. Lee’s documentary celebrates the genius of Jackson’s life.
“A lot of stuff gets lost about Michael Jackson because it gets obscured by all the other stuff. That’s why it’s been a [conscious] decision on my part for the two documentaries I’ve done—Bad 25 and this one—we deal just with the music. All the other stuff, let somebody else do that. I’m not doing it,” said Lee.
In the documentary—which takes us through Michael Jackson's life up to Off the Wall, the entertainer’s pioneering 1979 solo album—we see incredible archival footage, some coming directly from Jackson’s personal archive. Jackson’s estate and Sony Music cooperated with the film.
The filmmaker also did extensive interviews with numerous people for the doc. “I do a ton of research; for me that’s part of storytelling,” said Lee. Quincy Jones, Randy Jackson, Katherine and Joe Jackson, Lee Daniels, the Weeknd, Pharrell Williams and Kobe Bryant are just some of the many people who make appearances in the documentary.
Though Lee is one of Jackson’s biggest fans, even he learned something new about the icon. “I want the audience to see those surprises,” said Lee.
The filmmaker told the Root that the two first met in 1988 at a United Negro College Fund dinner where Jackson was being honored. It would be eight more years before they crossed paths again. "He came to my house and wanted me to direct a short film from the HIStory CD, ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us,’ that we shot in Brazil,” said Lee.
The filmmaker also wanted to stress in making the documentary that “talent is never enough; you have to work. He was talented, but he also worked to perfect his God-given talent,” said Lee. “His work ethic is legendary, and he got that, I think, from seeing his father, with 11 kids, get up every day and go to the steel mill.”
It could be said that Lee has a similar work ethic. Besides making movies, commercials, videos and plays, Lee teaches graduate film students at New York University. While at Sundance, the filmmaker said he doesn’t have time to see movies because of his nonstop schedule, but he did make a point of going to the premiere of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. Parker, who worked with Lee on Red Hook Summer, said that Lee gave him some edit notes for The Birth of a Nation. Lee’s hand can also be seen in How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, which was produced by two of his former NYU students, Julius Pryor and Marttise Hill. In addition, Lee’s Do the Right Thing makes an appearance in Southside With You, a fictionalized account of the Obamas’ first date.
It’s that groundbreaking film, Do the Right Thing, that helped secure Lee’s place as a visionary filmmaker. He told The Root that instead of making a sequel, as many have suggested, he’s still working on bringing the film to Broadway.
As for another documentary on Jackson and his music, Lee said, “If God is willing and the creek don’t rise,” he will do something on Thriller.
Editor’s note: Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall premieres on Showtime on Feb. 5.