On Janet Jackson documentary, the discreet singer (almost) tells all for you
Thoughtfully and passionately, artist opens up her childhood, her first marriage and her superstar brother Michael.
Janet Jackson is in the back seat of an SUV cruising down the streets of her hometown of Gary, Indiana, noting, “I haven’t really been here since I was 8 years old,” when she spots a mural on the side of a building — beautiful artwork of her brothers in their Jackson 5 heyday.
“Oh, I love that,” she says, and the tears start to well up, and we’re reminded that while Jackson is a brilliant and groundbreaking and world-famous and fabulously successful artist who has been to the top of the entertainment mountain, she’s also been through a lot.
A two-part documentary airing at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday on A&E and Lifetime.
In the two-part documentary “Janet Jackson.,” airing simultaneously on A&E and Lifetime on Friday and Saturday, the intensely private Jackson opens up like she never has before, to the extent that even some of her siblings express surprise she gave such access to director Benjamin Hirsch and his crew, starting in 2017 and continuing for some five years. (I’ve seen the first part of the documentary, which concludes before developments such as the allegations against her brother Michael, the Super Bowl controversy and the death of Michael, all of which are to be covered in Part 2.)
Blending archival footage of TV appearances and concerts with never-before-seen home movie snippets as well as interviews conducted over the last few years, “Janet Jackson.” is a no-frills, straightforward documentary and justifiably so, as Jackson’s story makes for riveting drama without any unnecessary directorial flourishes. Janet comes across as thoughtful, passionate, warmhearted and open — even when that openness at times causes her to well up with tears or tell the filmmakers certain memories are too painful for her to keep discussing.
It’s a kick to see Janet return to Gary and the house where she grew up, as she’s met out front by big brother Randy, who notes the home was all of “670 square feet, for nine kids and two parents.” (We learn Janet and her sisters slept on the living room sofa, while the boys were packed into bunk beds in a tiny bedroom.) More than once, there’s a reference to how tough Joe Jackson was on the children, though the documentary doesn’t directly address allegations of abuse. “We didn’t understand how someone could be so mean and crazy,” says Randy, while Janet acknowledges her father was always more of a manager than a father but says, “It was because of my father I’ve had the career I’ve had.”
We take a comprehensive but fast-paced journey through Janet’s emergence in the spotlight, first as a pint-sized sidekick to her brothers onstage and in the variety show “The Jacksons” in 1976, then with roles on “Good Times” and the TV version of “Fame.” (There’s fantastic home movie footage of the Jacksons rehearsing in the studio and joined by Janet, who is all of 6 or 7.) Still, as Jackson approached adulthood, she wasn’t even certain she wanted to continue in show business: “I wanted to go to college and study business law. … My father said that wasn’t going to happen. … [He told me], ‘You’re going to sing.’ ”
In separate interviews, Janet and James DeBarge talk about their marriage when Janet was just 18 — a union that quickly fell apart due to DeBarge’s drug addiction. The tabloids ran wild with stories claiming Janet secretly had a baby with DeBarge, but says “Fame” star Debbie Allen: “Rumors were flying around like hash in a diner. … She was with us [on set] all day, every day … where was the baby?”
Janet also speaks candidly about how her relationship with Michael wasn’t as close after the release of “Thriller,” which turned Michael into the biggest star in the world, and her decision to fire her father as manager after her first two albums were mild disappointments. Teaming up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (who appear in the film in some great studio footage with Janet during the making of “Rhythm Nation 1814,” and in present-day interviews), Jackson released the iconic “Control” album, forging her own path to superstardom.
So much life. So much music. So many years in the public eye. And that just takes us to halftime in Janet’s story, in more ways than one.