The Janet Jackson Documentary Proves She Deserves Better

If there is one pop star deserving of a reappraisal, it’s Janet Jackson.

The overblown reaction to her 2004 Super Bowl halftime performance sank her mainstream pop career and dulled recognition of her undeniable impact on music. While artists like Mariah Carey and Céline Dion have bolstered and burnished their legacies, Jackson has sat in this uncomfortable bind of under-appreciation. Recent award show tributes and (belated) induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are lovely but don’t erase the damage done. It’s been difficult for Janet Jackson fans to watch “Rhythm Nation,” “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” and “That’s The Way Love Goes” go unrecognized. You can only imagine how it must feel for Jackson herself.

Never one to sit idly by, the icon seeks to reclaim control of her narrative with Janet Jackson., the four-part Lifetime and A&E documentary. It sees Jackson revisiting her life and four-decade-long career, adding context to her professional and personal choices.

Jackson is a notoriously private person, so the access she grants the documentary producers is unprecedented. Besides plentiful archival footage and interviews, Jackson shares several home videos with tantalizing glimpses into her creative process and personal relationships. We see her and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis working on her landmark Rhythm Nation 1814 album, creative chemistry and frustrations on full display. We see a lot of her second husband René Elizondo Jr. and how their relationship developed and eventually withered. The most fascinating video shows Janet and Michael writing their duet “Scream.” The footage is very cool, but seeing present-day Janet share the difficulties behind it and how the song was as much about familial obligation as creative synergy makes it genuinely compelling.

Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson at the 1993 Grammy Awards (Courtesy: WireImage)
Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson at the 1993 Grammy Awards (Courtesy: WireImage)

When you consider that Janet and Michael never performed “Scream” live, never promoted it together, and even accepted the VMA for Best Dance Video in 1995 from different sections of the audience, it makes sad sense. Michael takes up substantial space in the series, but it feels purposeful, reinforcing how remarkable it was that she became more than his little sister. Michael’s shadow loomed large and even negatively impacted her career (we learn that Janet was on the cusp of signing a promotional deal with Coca-Cola before the 1993 child abuse allegations broke). Still, she pushed ahead and carved her own path. The documentary is best when it offers that level of insight.

As captivating as it can be, Janet Jackson. feels incomplete and messy. I imagine it’s challenging to cover the breadth of Jackson’s life in only four hours. However, the director seems to have a limited understanding of it, picking over moments and milestones with little rhyme or reason, skimming over specific periods and eras, and messing up her career timeline. Some hiccups are minor, like implying “Control” was the titular album’s lead single when it was “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” Framing the Janet album around the filming of Poetic Justice and the infamous 1993 Rolling Stone cover frustratingly cuts out its development. It does make some sense, though, given how the album explores black women’s sexuality. 

(Courtesy: A&E/Lifetime)

There are some more egregious errors. The utter lack of examination of The Velvet Rope is indefensible. The album is a career cornerstone and arguably her best work, and relegating it to tour rehearsal clips and a highlights reel feels offensive. The Velvet Rope’s subject matter – depression, frank sexuality, queerness – might be difficult for Jackson to discuss now. However, the failure to address the album’s development undercuts a critical time in her career. It also fails to connect how its commercial underperformance foretold the Super Bowl fiasco. Speaking of the Super Bowl, the documentary says little about the career-redefining event. It doesn’t explain what happened, doesn’t entirely communicate how destructive it was to her career, nor does it interrogate the systems that unfairly punished her. Damita Jo is briefly acknowledged, but the post-Super Bowl albums 20 Y.O., Discipline, and Unbreakable are straight-up ignored.

Another confounding mistake was Janet’s insistence that the whole family supported Michael during the 1993 allegations. La Toya famously issued a statement against her brother, which the family passionately rebuked and led to her exile for years. She would later reveal that her husband Jack Gordon forced her into the statement and others against the family, but it doesn’t make the conflict any less valid and a notable error in the record. At least, it leaves some holes in how Janet is revising the Jackson family narrative, a clear secondary goal of this documentary.

Janet Jackson in "That's The Way Love Goes" (Courtesy: Virgin Records)
Janet Jackson in “That’s The Way Love Goes” (Courtesy: Virgin Records)

The documentary’s unstable structure was likely the necessary evil of having Jackson’s sign-off. While she is open to discussing some of the messier parts of her past (like her marriage to James DeBarge and that rumored secret daughter), there are still some things even she won’t touch. Alongside the other gaps mentioned above, there’s also no mention of her third marriage to Wissam Al Mana, the father of her son Eissa. How much is tied up in legal issues and possible NDAs is beside the point; it’s another part of her life that is conspicuously missing from a documentary that, by all accounts, aims to be definitive. There is immense value in seeing Jackson through her eyes, but some notable blind spots might not have existed if she were less involved.

If not definitive, then Janet Jackson. does give her back control of her legacy. Seeing her incredible performances, the work behind them, and how they impacted everyone from Missy Elliott to Whoopi Goldberg, you can’t deny her cultural impact. Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t fully reflect the person behind that impact. The series may feature Jackson in her own words, but sentences are missing. The documentary argues that Janet Jackson deserves better than she’s received over the years, but it sadly offers more of the same.

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