The strangest thing about Off the Wall (and rest assured, there are many curious facets to it) is that throughout its three-and-a-half decades of existence, fans, critics, and historians alike have all glossed over the fact that when you get right down it, it shouldn’t even exist.
Released in 1979, Michael Jackson’s first “adult” solo album broke down too many boundaries to count, and in becoming the genre-busting classic that it’s hailed as today, it accidentally canceled itself out, existing as the only disco album that anyone should ever own while simultaneously transcending that very same genre. Many of its songs serve as the ground floor for modern pop music as we know it, incorporating classic soul, Gamble & Huff-branded R&B, and light funk elements together into something that was not only wholly unique into itself, but also immensely, immutably popular. To borrow a phrase from another critic: if the entirety of pop music was wiped out in a single instant and you were given the daunting task of having to rebuild it from scratch, Off the Wall would be one of the first seeds you drop in the ground, because virtually every trope you hold dear to this day traces back to Off the Wall‘s unquestioned influence.
Yet, even with all that weighty rhetoric in mind, Off the Wall hasn’t aged as nicely as it should have, despite many of its songs being load-bearing pillars to what modern radio has become. What’s even more absurd is the fact that it even exists, its very creation born from a perfect storm of in-the-moment influences and chance encounters, all of which is lovingly detailed through the new Spike Lee documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. While Lee has directed non-fiction features before, with the tones ranging from stand-up comedic to gravely serious and emotionally furious (for the latter, see his already-essential When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts), this Journey bends and entertains in fascinating ways. It does what all good music documentaries should do from the get-go by giving us the context as to why its subject is so important. Martin Scorsese’s excellent Bob Dylan: No Direction Home does this too, but for Journey, Lee is able to go about it by taking unexpected paths.
A boon to his research team is the very fact that Michael Jackson is Michael Jackson, a child star who has had virtually every moment of his life documented in one way or another. Journey takes the viewer through the Jackson 5’s early Motown success, interviewing songwriters, Berry Gordy, and all surviving members to tell the story of a group that got very big very quickly, so adored amongst America’s youth that before long the group got an animated TV show. Despite having an incredible run of number one singles, it wasn’t long before they were considered nothing more than washed up radio fluff. No one wanted them, and Motown was far from keen about the group making music on their own terms. Throughout their various ups and downs, the band branches out to try self-producing, working with the aforementioned Gamble & Huff, and eventually giving a good ol’ stab to various solo projects, young Michael even scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for his chart-topping ballad to a dead rat, “Ben”.
Yet, raw interview footage with Jackson and remembrances from the people that were with him at the time show that even before he turned ten, Jackson was obsessed with success, sitting in on mixing sessions and shaking down industry songwriters about their process. Some revealing footage shows a young acne-faced Michael at Studio 54, hanging with unexpected celebrity friends like Liza Minnelli and Paul Simon, at one point telling a news interviewer that after doing all the tightly-choreographed routines with the rest of his brothers on stage, it’s great to just dance for the hell of it, absorbing the nightlife and laughing when he mentions that he saw Darth Vader at the club the other night. It’s raw, uncut Jackson, but candid and honest in a way we’ve rarely seen since.
One of the film’s most fascinating sequences traces Jackson’s love of dance, showing a time when he got to interview Fred Astaire and another where he got to tap dance with the woefully overlooked Nicholas Brothers, a black dance duo who once held the screen with Gene Kelly (Kelly also appears in posthumous interview segments). Most revealing of all, however, is a letter he once wrote while on tour with his brothers, where he talks about how he wants to create a new character named “MJ”, one who has studied the whole of entertainment, learned from the masters, and bettered it. He shows a drive and ambition that is beyond that of mere mortals, his drive to become one of the greatest entertainers in all of history drawing rare parallel with stars like Kanye West and Beyoncé. One of his obsessions as a young man was with the musical The Wiz, his love of it eventually leading to his being cast as the Scarecrow in the film adaptation, which meant working with the likes of Diana Ross, Sidney Lumet, and none other than Quincy Jones, the jazz-minded pop producer who would go on to collaborate with and define the sound of Michael Jackson as we know him.
From the opening keyboard vamp of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, it’s clear that Off the Wall is cut from a different cloth than most other disco records, that joyous cloud of strings helping lift that horn-ready melody and open-air chorus, Jackson opening the song (after his mumbled, Star Wars-indebted monologue) with his now-famous head-voice yelp, which, in the Journey doc, Questlove refers to as his “Free at last! Free at last!” moment. Despite its uplift and pomp, “Don’t Stop” is a song that notably stayed away from the saccharine, which can’t necessarily be said about the featherweight “Girlfriend”, a still-beloved but notably lesser entry in Jackson’s solo canon (although, let’s be honest, most of that blame can go straight to writer Paul McCartney, who never found a syrupy melody he didn’t like).
But even with help from heavyweights like David Foster (“It’s the Falling in Love”), Stevie Wonder (“I Can’t Help It”), and eventual “Thriller” songwriter Rod Temperton (who contributes three of the ten cuts here, including the indelible “Rock with You”), the album’s best moments come from Jackson himself, having penned “Don’t Stop”, “Working Day and Night”, and the lesser-appreciated workout that is “Get On the Floor”. Even his quiet storm number, “She’s Out of My Life”, was written by someone else, but per Rosie Perez in the Journey doc, the sentiment was all Michael, with girls the world over speculating as to who it was that broke his heart.
Yet even with some lesser moments scattered about, Off the Wall is a wholly consistent album, due in part to the fact that never before or after has Michael sounded so utterly convincing as a lover, whether he be wounded (“She’s Out of My Life”), turned on (“Rock with You”), or even joyously exhausted (“Working Day and Night”). Perhaps this can be attributed to the notion that, for many people, Off the Wall served as their first introduction to Jackson as a “grown up”. Adult Michael had few expectations to live up to aside from his own, and Thriller, for all its globe-swallowing greatness, is merely a magnified version of Off the Wall, as the cheesy moments got cheesier (“Thriller”), the dance concessions got dancier (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”), and the McCartney collaborations got notably more McCartnier (“The Girl Is Mine”). Of course, Thriller expanded Off the Wall‘s base by adding in more rock influences and a good amount of gravitas (in the form of Jackson’s ever-fascinating degrees of paranoia), two elements which would only grow and arguably even overtake Jackson’s later works, leaving Off the Wall as far and away Jackson’s “lightest” album, but, in many ways, arguably the purest form of expression of his artistic self.
While there have been prior editions of Off the Wall with additional goodies and extras, missing out on Jackson’s early home-recording demos in favor of having this glorious Spike Lee documentary is a worthwhile swap, because the story of what lead Jackson to Off the Wall is just as thrilling as the album itself. While it’s easy to give lip service to a pop record that has defined so much for so many, coupling it with something as fresh and lively as Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall results in a rare enhancement of what you already have come to know and love, as knowing the behind-the-scenes machinations of this pop classic leads you to love it even more, flaws and all, from its immortal opening chords until its time to burn this disco out.