Last year’s outstanding HBO Max documentary about Tina Turner gave the retired queen of rock ‘n’ roll what will hopefully be the final word on her roller-coaster career and tumultuous marriage to Ike Turner. Almost 30 years younger than Turner and still actively working, Janet Jackson makes similar efforts to set the record straight on public narratives about her illustrious family, tough upbringing, relationships, and individual stardom in the documentary series JANET JACKSON., premiering on Lifetime and A&E this Friday and Saturday.
The first of the two episodes, airing tonight, opens with Janet in the back of an SUV, being driven through her hometown of Gary, Indiana. She’s asked by a producer off-screen why she’s agreed to have a film crew follow her around, beginning in 2017, after years of remaining fiercely protective and tight-lipped about her personal life. She responds, “It’s just something that needs to be done. It’s never… you’ve had someone write this unauthorized biography, or someone else do something. Or they’ll do a movie, and it’s candy-coated.” She stops mid-explanation to point out a giant mural of her brothers posing as the Jackson 5 that moves her to tears, and instructs director Benjamin Hirsch to capture it on camera.
While Janet doesn’t specify a particular impetus for this PR move, there’s never been a more appropriate time for the pop and R&B icon to share her side of things. Over the past four years, beginning with the announcement that Justin Timberlake would headline the 2018 Super Bowl Halftime Show, her career has undergone a renewed interest and appreciation on social media and in pop culture. Fans were indignant about Timberlake’s invitation to perform after Janet’s career had famously suffered from the notorious wardrobe malfunction he facilitated during their 2004 Halftime Show performance. The incident has been revisited amid the rise of the #MeToo movement and conversations about women’s mistreatment in the entertainment industry, and this past November The New York Times released a documentary on Hulu exploring her subsequent industry blacklisting. More positively, her career was recognized when she was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
But Janet has always been a deeply fascinating and complex figure beyond just one particular moment, as illustrated in the docuseries’ first two hours, before the Super Bowl controversy is even addressed. We see how the soft-spoken artist was thrust into the entertainment industry by her father, Joe Jackson, appearing in her brothers’ Las Vegas act at the age of 7 and in the siblings’ subsequent variety show. The singer claims she always felt like an outsider among her celebrated male siblings, despite her overly confident, camera-ready disposition as a child performer. Footage of Janet acting in supporting roles on Good Times and the Fame television series later on throw the layers of her talent into sharp relief.
As a teenager, Joe dissuaded her from pursuing higher education and arranged a contract with A&M Records. She released two low-performing (but good!) pop albums, the failure of which prompted her to part ways with her father/manager. Like many women, Janet only knew how to gain control of her life by entering a relationship with another man, and we hear about her tumultuous, short-lived marriage to childhood friend James DeBarge and the decades-old rumor that she secretly gave birth to his child. The docuseries also traces the origins of her relationship with backup dancer, and eventual director of several of her music videos, Rene Elizondo Jr., and utilizes his self-recorded, never-before-seen video footage.
Some of the most gripping portions of the doc’s first half are the mentions of Joe, whose reputation has been defined by allegations of abuse from several of his children. In a famous series of interviews with Martin Bashir in 2003, Michael Jackson discussed how the domineering patriarch would beat them with a belt for making mistakes during rehearsals, among other physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive behavior. And Janet spoke vaguely about how her father’s parenting fractured their relationship in a 2011 sitdown with CNN.
Viewers might be unsettled hearing Janet and Randy Jackson—who executive-produced the series alongside his sister—repeatedly justify their father’s actions, joke about their fear of him, and insist that he loved them. These confessions are intercut with scenes of Janet as Penny on Good Times revealing burn marks she received from her mother and eerie interview clips of Joe evading questions about his disciplinary methods.
While the docuseries doesn’t get into the weeds of every flashpoint it covers, it becomes clear that adequately representing Janet’s life in the allotted time span is an extremely difficult task. That’s especially true of the second episode, which manages to cover her relationship with new jack swing pioneers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and her choreographer Paula Abdul, the career-shifting success of Control, the making of the more socially conscious Rhythm Nation and its subsequent tour, plus her splintered relationship with Michael, whose contemporaneous success inspired aspects of her career. We’re also overloaded with short soundbites from a wide range of celebrities discussing her cultural imprint.
This sort of cut-and-dry, macro-level documentary, akin to a Behind the Music episode, is fitting for Janet’s self-contained personality and distant relationship to the outside world, as opposed to something more off the cuff. And while the first half of the series has its fair share of intimate moments, the second episode’s depiction of the following years–including the child abuse allegations made against her brother Michael, his death, the death of her father and, of course, the Super Bowl–will certainly feature more fascinating revelations and observations.
While the portrait painted of Janet thus far feels deeply familiar and previously established, it’s nevertheless a rare treat for her most dedicated fans. Whether they discover anything new about the secretive superstar is another story.