At the outset of “Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall,” a film helmed by Spike Lee about the King of Pop’s transition from precocious child star of The Jacksons to pop royalty, viewers get a trace of the calm before MJ's Moonwalking storm.
As the closing minutes recap Off The Wall's performance at the 1980 Grammy Awards, wherein Jackson wasn't nominated for any of the night's big awards like Album of the Year and Song of the Year, except for R&B categories (he claimed Best Male R&B Vocal Performance), we see parts of Thriller's inception take shape. “He was very hurt by the Grammy awards,” Lee says. “He saw it as a big slight and said, ‘That’s the last time that’s going to happen to me. Then he came back with a vengeance.”
But before that "vengeance" would turn into the world's best-selling album of all time, there was Off the Wall, a key stepping stone to MJ's world domination.
Initially premiered at Sundance in January, "Journey," Lee's second movie about the King of Pop after 2012's "Bad 25," aired on Showtime this past Friday (February 5) featuring archival footage from Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, as well as commentary from The Jacksons, Questlove, The Weeknd, Stevie Wonder, and Off the Wall contributors (Greg Phillinganes, Bruce Swedien).
In light of the film's recent broadcast premiere, here are a few interesting facts we uncovered about MJ's genre-blending classic, Off the Wall.
"The Wiz" birthed Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones' working relationship.
Other than showcasing what he can do as a solo artist, Michael also had aspirations of becoming an actor. And so, he did. In Sidney Lumet's 1978 silver screen adaptation of "The Wiz," Jackson took on the role of the Scarecrow. Besides starring alongside Diana Ross, Richard Pryor and Lena Horne, MJ was also joined by musician extraordinaire, Quincy Jones.
While speaking on a pre-recording session for the "Wiz," Rob Cohen, a producer for the film, recalls the moment MJ won Quincy over. "The real night of Off the Wall was born, we were doing the pre-recording for the movie. Quincy had tunnel vision on Diana Ross. Finally about 2 a.m., Q had what he wanted from Diana and he says, "Okay, Michael, you come in on bar six." And Michael comes and just stars at 1,000 watts. He's doing everything that became the signature Michael."
Executives at Epic Records originally wanted Maurice White to produce Off the Wall.
Boundless funk voyager and founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, Maurice White passed away just one day before the Showtime premiere of Lee's Off the Wall documentary on Feb. 5th, but the icon's everlasting presence was once again made clear.
Before working with Quincy Jones on the project, we learned MJ was originally set to work with White on 1979's Off the Wall. According to the doc, record executives at Epic wanted White to produce Jackson's solo debut. The singer eventually went with Jones. It's also mentioned that the label wasn't big on Jones producing the album, as as some execs believed he was "too jazzy." But after Jackson fought for the musician to guide his first solo outing, the rest was history.
"I Can't Help It" was originally meant for Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life.
Susan Green and Stevie Wonder wrote Off the Wall's "I Can't Help It," but as Wonder reveals in the film, the track was originally written for his double-disc opus, Songs in the Key of Life.
"She's Out of My Life" was intended for Frank Sinatra.
The true tear-jerker of the album, "She's Out of My Life," was originally intended for Frank Sinatra. The song's writer, Tom Bahler, revealed that he first played the ballad for Quincy Jones over the phone. After telling Jones about the track belonging to Sinatra, Bahler recalled the following suggestion from Jones:
"Sinatra will do it anyway [but] if you trust me, I promise you an unforgettable recording of the song."
It's worth noting that Sinatra never recorded the track.
While on tour with his brothers in 1979, Michael wrote a chilling manifesto about the kind of artist he vowed to become.
In a handwritten note about his plans once venturing into the solo spotlight, Michael ultimately summarized what became of his career before it actually materialized.
As revealed in the film, the prophetic letter goes:
"MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a new look, I should be a totally different person … I should be a new incredible actor, singer, dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist. A researcher. A trainer. A master. I will be better than every great actor rolled in one. I must have the most incredible training system to dig and dig and dig until I find. I will study and look back on the whole world of entertainment and perfect it. Look back on the world of entertainment and take it from where the greats left off."