The Janet Jackson was an amazingly contemporary pop artist throughout her two-decade-plus career. She was a risk-taker with a unique voice, a vivid sense of self-presentation, and an inherent knowledge of the magnitude of the effort necessary to create world-shaking music. She was the epitome of power and command, almost unequalled in her day and meticulously imitated by succeeding generations of women.
Although the highs and lows of Jackson’s career are often referenced throughout “Janet Jackson,” a four-hour documentary that debuted over two nights on Lifetime and A&E, the highs and lows are sometimes depicted as a type of collateral asset or harm. Her brothers were the ones who made her famous initially; Jackson was the outspoken younger sister who came up later. When her brother Michael Jackson, the world’s most recognised music singer at the time, was accused of sexual misbehaviour for the first time, Jackson lost her chance to sign a lucrative sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola. Jackson’s career is severely harmed after a wardrobe malfunction causes her performance at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show to be halted. Not her colleague, the rising star Justin Timberlake, suffers as a result of the mishap.
As filler between cuts, “Janet Jackson” is bolstered by some incredible archive footage, much of it shot by Jackson’s ex-husband René Elizondo Jr., who carried a camera throughout their time together — as romantic and professional partners — with an eye toward a future “Janet Jackson” omnibus archive. “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814,” her second album with the group and the follow-up to the career-launching “Control,” finds Jackson in the studio with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, engaged in a tug of war of wills while hammering out the tone of the record. It is possible to observe Jackson and Michael discussing lyrics when they are recording the 1995 song “Scream.” Jackson is also seen requesting that Michael use the voice from her rock hit “Black Cat.” In addition to scenes from the table read for the 1993 film “Poetic Justice,” in which Jackson co-starred with Tupac Shakur, there is some sleepy but telling footage from a meeting with Coca-Cola as Jackson is being offered sponsorship. There is also footage from the meeting with Coca-Cola as Jackson is being offered sponsorship.
Among others who seem to be there is Benjamin Hirsch, the film’s director, who appears to be the one who is interrogating Jackson. Hirsch employs the audio of his enquiry in a number of chunks in order to present a more full picture of the partial response he gets from the other party. His requests are mild but straightforward, and there is just a faint hint of the uneasiness that comes with pushing a renowned and notoriously private person in an unpleasant path in such a public setting. Sometimes, when Jackson is probing, he’s riding in the back seat of a sports utility vehicle, which is being chauffeured toward a location designed to trigger a memory; the most vulnerable aspect of these scenes is the physical proximity, which serves as a proxy for actual feeling-sharing closeness between the characters.
When the attention is turned away from Jackson and placed on others, particularly Jackson’s behind-the-scenes colleagues such as Lucas and dancer Tina Landon, little flashes of lucidity may be seen. Furthermore, Jam and Lewis (who also act as music supervisors for the documentary) as well as Jackson’s former choreographer Paula Abdul provide a more in-depth understanding of Jackson’s craft. Other celebrities are gathered, including Whoopi Goldberg, Mariah Carey, Samuel L. Jackson, Barry Bonds (! ), and Missy Elliott, all for the sole purpose of showering Jackson with platitudes, which is a monumental lost opportunity.
It would be churlish to dwell on what isn’t addressed here, but considering that official films sometimes veer toward the hagiographic, there’s very little analysis or appreciation of Jackson’s music or videos, with just claims of its grandeur as a substitute. Except for Questlove, who talks about campaigning for her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, everyone else is in agreement. Jackson’s life has been shaped by a number of traumatic experiences, but this film largely remembers them in a glib manner and fails to make a compelling case for her successes. Furthermore, the editing is choppy, and the lighting is sometimes harsh — a tabloid-style production for an artist who ought to be given a Vanity Fair treatment, to put it mildly.
However, the pall is emanating from inside the home. Even at the height of her popularity, Jackson was a hesitant performer, and years of public controversy that has tarnished her reputation even from a distance have not seemed to have moved her to do much more than shrug and flee.
According to this metric, the film is a success. And there are situations when the hesitation is taken literally. When Michael Jackson’s mother is questioned about Michael’s death, she seems to stumble a little, and someone off camera, who appears to be Jackson, inquires as to if the probing is too much for her. She confirms that that is the case, and they go on. Jackson’s emotions get the better of her while she’s talking about her father’s death — “I had the chance to thank him, thank God” — which is a rare instance in which she lets her emotions get the better of her. However, after just the tiniest shiver, she raises a barrier: “OK, Ben. That’s enough.” Despite this,