Wednesday 22 November 2017

King of Pop's road to 'Off the Wall'

On the cusp: Michael Jackson in 1979, the year of solo album Off the Wall.
On the cusp: Michael Jackson in 1979, the year of solo album Off the Wall.
John Meagher

John Meagher

The Wizard of Oz would change Michael Jackson's life in ways he could not have foreseen. When Sidney Lumet cast him in his all African-American remake, The Wiz, in 1978, Jackson went from being the cute kid in the Jackson 5 to a 19-year-old on the cusp of global fame.

It wasn't so much Jackson's all-singing, all-dancing talents that would change the game: it was meeting Quincy Jones during the shoot. The esteemed studio producer, who was employed as the film's musical director, was already an industry veteran having worked with Frank Sinatra, and he would soon play a massive role in shaping Jackson's new direction.

The first Jones knew of Jackson's plans to make what would become Off the Wall was when the singer asked him to recommend a producer. Jones offered some names, but eventually suggested he produce the album himself. And what a job he did.

Jones is one of a multitude of talking heads who tells the story of Michael Jackson in the 1970s in an absorbing new documentary from Spike Lee. From Motown to Off the Wall features musicians, such as Roots drummer and musical historian Questlove, cultural commentators, members of Jackson's own family and, for reasons not quite clear, the former basketball supremo Kobe Bryant. It debuted at Sundance earlier this year and is available as a DVD on a newly released edition of Off the Wall.

The film shows what a big deal Jackson was while still a child: his band of brothers were omnipresent in the charts and, thanks to the Jackson 5 cartoon, on TV. At 13, he'd scored a hit with 'Ben', an Academy Award-nominated song recorded for the oddball boy-with-a-pet-rat film of the same name. It would be Jackson's first solo US chart-topper.

Showbiz is festooned with child stars who struggled to make it in their chosen discipline once adulthood beckoned and there was a sense that Jackson might suffer a similar fate. Certainly, his family band were seen as lightweight and, for reasons not exclusively to do with the animated series, cartoonish. And that was despite the undisputed brilliance of several of their songs, including 'Shake Your Body', which Lee's documentary devotes several minutes to.

But what observers at the time wouldn't have known, and what this film makes very clear, was the extraordinary drive the young Michael had to truly make it as a solo star - and to be taken seriously. He was really coming into his own as a songwriter as was clear from the demo of 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough', which would soon become Off the Wall's most emblematic song. Jackson's early version is close to the completed one, right down to the soon-to-be trademark vocal tics.

From Motown to Off the Wall is Lee's second film on Michael Jackson. Four years ago, he made a documentary which examined the making of 1987's Bad, the singles-saturated follow-up to Thriller, the bestselling album ever.

Like that film, this one is purely fixated on the music and chooses to ignore the controversies surrounding Jackson. It steers clear, for instance, of the fact that the very year Off the Wall was released was the one when Jackson reportedly had cosmetic surgery for the first time. That 'nose-job' marked the first of a rumoured 100-odd procedures over the course of his life and one can see the significant facial change in Lee's library footage.

Lee's decision to focus on the music is the right one. Jackson's troubled life and countless eccentricities have detracted from the essence of who he was as an artist: From Motown to Off the Wall reminds us of his near-unrivalled brilliance as a pop star, his vocal mastery, the dance moves that could be copied but not equalled, his hypnotic showmanship. Jackson first played Ireland in 1988 - in a pair of fondly remembered shows at Cork's Páirc Uí Chaoimh - but what a treat it would have been to see him almost a decade earlier when he was enjoying that first flush of solo success.

Off the Wall would go on to sell 20 million copies and Jones's stunning work in the studio would influence a whole new generation of producers. In the film, Mark Ronson talks about how the pristine production somehow doesn't sound dated. He's right.

Incidentally, as Lee points out towards the end, Jackson was only nominated for one Grammy - for Best Male R&B Performance - but the category was considered so unimportant that it was presented to the singer during a commercial break in the live television broadcast. It's an anecdote that suggests the #oscarssowhite campaign, which dominated the coverage of last weekend's Academy Awards, has been a long time brewing.

While it's hard to deny that Lee's film is something of a hagiography to Jackson, it does make you want to go back and listen to the album anew. There's a track-by-track appreciation which will make even the most dedicated fan see the work in a new light.

It also offers a reminder that Off the Wall helped lift the careers of others, notably the German-based English member of funk band Heatwave, Rod Temperton, who co-wrote two of the songs. Hitherto relatively obscure, Temperton would also have co-writes on Thriller. Just think of the royalties payments that have been flooding into his bank account ever since.

* The Dublin Port Company is not an organisation one would associate with the arts, but it's behind a fascinating new project called Starboard Home which sees 12 musicians write and record new songs inspired by Dublin city, its port and the Liffey.

The recordings took place last month - under the direction of Bell X1's Paul Noonan - and will be released as an album in June. Dyed-in-the-wool Dubs like Dubliners' John Sheahan, the Blades' Paul Cleary and Jape are among those involved and a special show will be held in the National Concert Hall on June 22. It's all part of the Ireland 2016 Centenary Project.

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