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Spike Lee’s ‘Off the Wall’ doc recalls when Michael Jackson went solo

Michael Jackson didn’t call his music videos “music videos,” and he would often correct those who used the term.

“He would say, ‘Short film, not music video,’ ” recalls Spike Lee, who directed two versions of Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us” in 1995 — one set in a penitentiary, the other shot in Brazil, with children and young adults marching, playing drums and dancing against the backdrop of tenement cities.

On a recent visit to Chicago, Lee talked about his upcoming documentary, “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall,” premiering across multiple platforms on Feb. 5, including Showtime, on demand and online.

“This is a follow-up about my documentary about ‘Bad,’ ” says Lee. “In this one, we follow the progression of Michael from a young man with the Jackson 5 to a solo artist. When Michael met Quincy Jones on the set of ‘The Wiz,’ that changed everything.

It was 1978. Jones was the lead producer on the soundtrack for “The Wiz.” During filming, Jackson asked Jones for some names of producers Jackson might want to work with.

Eventually Jones offered to produce Jackson’s next record himself — and the result of their collaboration was the Gary native’s breakthrough album, 1979’s “Off the Wall,” which yielded hit singles such as “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You” and “She’s Out of My Life,” and sold more than 30 million copies.

Bonnie Pointer (left) and LaToya Jackson join Michael Jackson in celebrating the two American Music Awards he won for “Off the Wall” in 1981. | AP files
Bonnie Pointer (left) and LaToya Jackson join Michael Jackson in celebrating the two American Music Awards he won for “Off the Wall” in 1981. | AP files

Jackson and Jones would make two more albums: “Thriller,” which has sold more than 110 million copies, and “Bad,” with more than 45 million copies sold.

“They’re remastering ‘Off the Wall’ and bundling [the CD] with my documentary [on DVD and Blu-Ray],” says Lee. “Good value!”

Lee says he thinks Jackson took such an interest in transcending the typical music video because he never became a movie star.

“I believe Michael could have done anything he wanted to do, but film, that’s one of the few things where he didn’t really get to the highest level. That’s why his ‘short films’ got longer and longer and longer.”

The “Off the Wall” documentary features filmed material from Jackson’s personal archive, and interviews with Pharrell Williams, Mark Ronson, John Legend and several members of the Jackson family. Lee hopes to follow this doc with a third film about Jackson and his music.

“Hopefully I’ll get to a documentary about ‘Thriller.’ So it would be a trilogy about the great Michael Jackson and the great Quincy Jones.”

The day before “Michael Jackson’s Journey…” debuts, Lee’s made-in-Chicago “Chi-Raq” will begin streaming on Amazon.

Given a limited released on Dec. 4, the controversial musical satire about gun violence grossed $2.6 million nationwide, doing particularly well in Chicago, with opening weekend grosses of over $15,000 per screen.

Although Lee says he was moved by the reception to the film — particularly when he heard from families affected by gun violence — he notes the struggle is still as monumental as ever.

“This has not been a good [start to the] year in Chicago. More than 25 homicides so far, 100 people shot.

“This is nothing I’m gloating about, I’m very sad. We’ve just got to keep on trying harder.”