In a new documentary, Janet Jackson is hiding in plain sight
By Jon Caramanica
Throughout her two-decade-plus heyday, Janet Jackson was an astonishingly modern pop superstar — a risk-taker with a distinctive voice, a vivid sense of self-presentation and an innate understanding of the scale of the labor required to make world-shaking music. She was the embodiment of authority and command, practically unrivaled in her day and studiously copied by later generations.
But throughout “Janet Jackson,” a four-hour documentary that premiered over two nights on Lifetime and A&E, the highs and lows of Jackson’s career are often presented as a kind of collateral asset or damage. Her brothers were famous first; Jackson was the spunky younger sister who came after. When her brother Michael, then the most famous pop star on the planet, faced his first allegations of sexual impropriety, Jackson lost her opportunity for a lucrative sponsorship with Coca-Cola. When a wardrobe malfunction derailed Jackson’s performance at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, it is her career that has tanked, and not that of her collaborator, rising star Justin Timberlake.
It’s a curious choice for the first official documentary about one of the most influential musicians of the past few decades. But what makes it even more curious is that Jackson herself is executive producer (along with her brother, and manager, Randy). It is a bait and switch, using the lure of access and intimacy — cameras followed her for five years, we’re told — as a tool of deflection.
“Janet Jackson” is a sanctioned documentary with the feel of a YouTube news-clip aggregation. Jackson is interviewed extensively, but largely provides play-by-play, rarely color commentary. In some parts, especially when she’s shown in conversation with Randy, she’s the one asking questions, especially when the pair return to the family’s home in Gary, Indiana. At almost every emotional crossroads, the film drops a whooshing thwack sound effect, an unconscious echo of the “Law & Order” cha-chunk, and cuts to commercial. That choice renders fraught moments melodramatic, and melodramatic moments comic.
In between elisions, “Janet Jackson” is bolstered by some phenomenal archival footage, mainly shot by Jackson’s ex-husband René Elizondo Jr., who toted a camera throughout their time together — as romantic and professional partners — with an eye toward some future omnibus archive. We see Jackson in the studio with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, in a tug-of-war of wills while working out the sound of “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814,” her second album with them and the follow-up to the career-making “Control.” During the recording for the 1995 single “Scream,” we see Jackson and Michael talking about lyrics, and Michael asking for her to tap into the voice from her rock hit “Black Cat.” There’s sleepy but telling footage of a meeting with Coca-Cola as Jackson is being offered that sponsorship, and also scenes from the table read of the 1993 film “Poetic Justice,” in which Jackson starred alongside Tupac Shakur.
As for drama, there is no drama, this film insists. Everything is fine. Joe Jackson, the family patriarch, is presented as a beacon of hard work and discipline, not abuse, without whom the children’s success would have been impossible. Jackson’s exes — James DeBarge, Elizondo, Jermaine Dupri — are largely forgiven for their improprieties. Her third husband, Wissam Al Mana (they split up in 2017), is never named, but the son they share, Eissa, is mentioned and briefly shown. As for the Super Bowl performance that derailed her career, well, Jackson and Timberlake are great friends, she says.
Or maybe something else is going on. “She continually suffers privately, and doesn’t involve any of you,” says Wayne Scot Lucas, her longtime stylist.
That seems to include Benjamin Hirsch, the film’s director and the one peppering Jackson with questions. In several segments, Hirsch uses the audio of his query in order to provide a more complete picture of the incomplete answer he receives. His asks are gentle but direct, with only a shadow of the awkwardness that comes with pushing a famous and famously private person in an uncomfortable direction. Often when he’s probing, Jackson is in the back seat of an SUV, being chauffeured to a location designed to trigger a memory; the most vulnerable aspect of these scenes is the physical proximity, a space-sharing closeness that’s a proxy for actual feeling-sharing closeness.
When the spotlight is ceded to others, especially Jackson’s behind-the-scenes collaborators such as Lucas and dancer Tina Landon, little flickers of clarity emerge. And a fuller appreciation of Jackson’s artistry comes from Jam and Lewis (who also serve as music supervisors on the documentary), and her former choreographer Paula Abdul. Plenty of other superstars are corralled — Whoopi Goldberg, Mariah Carey, Samuel Jackson, Barry Bonds (!), Missy Elliott — simply to shower Jackson with platitudes, a colossal missed opportunity.
It’s churlish to linger over what’s not covered here, but given that official documentaries can tend toward the hagiographic, there’s perilously little analysis or appreciation of Jackson’s music or videos, just assertions of their greatness. The one exception is Questlove, who discusses advocating for her election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Jackson’s life has spanned many traumas, but this film mostly recalls them gauzily, and doesn’t argue strongly enough for her triumphs. What’s more, the editing is choppy, and the lighting is often garish — a tabloid-style production for an artist who merits vanity treatment.
But the pall is coming from inside the house. Even at her pop peak, Jackson was often reluctant, and years of public scandal that tarred her even from a distance have not seemingly inclined her to do much beyond shrug and retreat.
By that measure, the film is a success. And sometimes the reticence is rendered literal. When Jackson’s mother is asked about Michael’s death, she falters a bit, and someone off camera, seemingly Jackson, asks her if the questioning is too much for her. She indicates that it is, and they move on. And when Jackson is discussing her father’s death — “I got the opportunity to thank him, thank God” — it’s the rare moment where emotion gets the best of her. After just the faintest shudder, though, she erects a wall: “OK, Ben, that’s enough.” And yet.