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Before Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ciara, Christina, Doja and many other performers topped charts for boldly embracing their sexualities, audaciously reconstructing their identities and needling pop music and performance conventions, there was Janet. Pick any of her albums — Control, Rhythm Nation, Velvet Rope, All for You — or watch any video and you can see that the youngest member of the dynastic Jackson family is a blueprint for a brash, honest and adventurous kind of musicianship.
She glittered in the spotlight and was a model of success. Until suddenly, she wasn’t. What happened to Jackson during her 2004 Super Bowl halftime show turned the artist into an unsavory punchline, and she retreated from public life. Now, with Janet Jackson, a documentary special premiering on Lifetime and A&E, she is ready to tell her story.
Airdate: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28 (Lifetime and A&E)
Executive producers: Janet Jackson, Randy Jackson, Rick Murray, Brie Miranda Bryant
Director: Ben Hirsch
Celebrity documentaries, especially those executive produced by the subjects themselves, are a peculiar genre. Whether or not they should be nostalgic, insightful, contain bombshell revelations, correct the record, convert haters or galvanize an already devoted fanbase depends on who you ask. But they are always exercises in self-mythology, acts of wondrous myth-making.
Janet Jackson is no different in that regard. The four-hour documentary special (of which critics received the first two episodes) is a work of uneven personal storytelling, an attempt by the legendary star to wrest control of her narrative from the grips of public discourse. Jackson, with the help of some members of her family and an array of celebrity friends like Al Sharpton, Debbie Allen and Missy Elliot, tries to articulate who she is to the world.
Directed by Benjamin Hirsch, Janet Jackson was born out of an invitation Jackson made in 2017 to a documentary film crew. They were initially going to follow the singer across 56 cities on her State of the World Tour, but they stayed for five years. The film opens with this acknowledgment, a gesture that promises a level of spontaneity and revelation the first two episodes don’t achieve. Instead, these two hours revisit Jackson’s childhood and chronicle the production of her most influential albums: Control and Rhythm Nation.
When you grow up in the limelight — as Jackson and her siblings did — you waffle between being the object of relentless fascination and destructive scrutiny. Your story might never really feel like your own, so in the process of reclamation, it’s safe to start from the beginning. Episode 1 kicks off with a homecoming. Jackson, along with her brother Randy (also an executive producer) returns to her childhood house in Gary, Indiana. During the drive, she talks about the timing of this documentary and tries to explain why she wants to tell her story now. She interrupts herself when she notices a black-and-white mural of her brothers on the side of a white brick building. All the boys, except Michael, are looking up toward the sky, which moves the star to tears. (For those wondering if or how the doc addresses Michael: Janet sidesteps any talk of the allegations against her brother, sticking to descriptions of what she characterizes as their close relationship and healthy sense of competition.)
The emotional tenor of the visit, set by that moment and backed by a dramatic score, is largely positive. Because Janet doesn’t remember much of the time in their Indiana home (the family moved to Los Angeles when she was 5 years old), Randy fills in the gaps. He gives her a tour of the small house, using different rooms as launching pads for stories about how the siblings used to live. Their conversation is aided by interviews with Jackson’s other siblings, Tito and Rebbie, who describe the youngest member of the crew in endearing terms. “She has always been her own lady,” Tito says at one point.
Joe Jackson is the topic of much discussion within these first hours. “My mother saw the talent, but it was my father that was smart enough to say they have to show this to the world,” Janet says in the first episode. Yet for those familiar with the patriarch’s abusive treatment of the Jackson children, these sentiments — which Janet usually punctuates with more conflicted-sounding comments — raise more questions than answers. It would perhaps be naïve to expect Jackson to release a tell-all in the style of her sister La Toya’s 2011 book (La Toya does not appear in the first two episodes), but what she offers here leaves one longing for more details.
Janet Jackson commits to allusions, which is a vexing but understandable approach to self-presentation. The star’s complicated relationship to visibility and image means trust is fickle (or nonexistent). The documentary feels imbued with an understanding that any revelation can and will become a headline. The special takes no aesthetic risks: The information is presented chronologically and the cinematography leaves much to be desired.
Jackson treads lightly when reflecting on her experiences. She confesses to wanting a more normal life as a child but understanding why her parents pushed their kids toward success. She tearily reflects on her first marriage to singer James DeBarge and how she embarked on her solo career. Themes about controlling her identity, love and self-possession crop up only to be swiftly swept aside.
A trove of archival footage bolsters the special, and for that alone it’s worth watching. If you grew up in a family that revered the Jacksons (like this critic), then the images and old videos are gold. In Episode 2, Jackson releases footage shot over 10 years by her ex-husband René Elizondo. These glimpses into her life and especially her recording process show a woman who loved those around her freely and strove for authentic self-expression.
But these are parts of Jackson that she articulates via her music, too — perhaps with greater ease and conviction. It’s lucky, then, that the artist recently announced she was working on a new album, conspicuously titled Black Diamond. One hopes that the record will accomplish what this special couldn’t.
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