Janet Jackson review – the breathtaking tale of a reluctant pop superstar | Television & radio


‘This is a story about control,” whispered Janet Jackson on the title track of her 1986 album. The singer’s new four-part documentary (Sky Documentaries) is an attempt to control her own story. Executive produced by Jackson and her brother Randy, and five years in the making, the series consolidates her 40 years as a recording artist. It is also Jackson reasserting herself in the first person, after years away from public view.

Hearing directly from Jackson is an increasingly rare event. Her soft voice was missing from the New York Times’ 2021 documentary Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, which focused on “Nipplegate”, the Super Bowl fiasco in 2004 that kneecapped her music career. By the time she apologised on Oprah, the damage was done. Jackson has made it clear that the split-second wardrobe malfunction was an embarrassing accident, but in the eyes of the conservative US it was premeditated “filth” inflicted on innocent audiences. The event overshadowed her legacy as one of the biggest pop stars of the 80s and 90s. (Here, it is covered in the final episode, the only one unavailable for preview at the time of writing.)

This show puts her back in the limelight, a place she always occupied reluctantly. The episodes draw out the tension between Jackson’s natural shyness and the life of stardom she was pushed into. The youngest of her siblings, she is initially defined here in relation to her brothers, who would rise to fame as The Jackson 5 in the mid 1960s. The opening scene sees her return to her childhood home in Gary, Indiana, a claustrophobic two-bedroom bungalow that could never comfortably contain the family’s outsized talents.

Their controlling father and manager, Joe Jackson, is cast as an antagonist, if not an out-and-out villain. Direct to camera, she recalls performing back-to-back gigs in Las Vegas, watching burlesque shows from the rafters of the theatre with Randy and Michael at the age of seven. There is something queasy about seeing 11-year-old Jackson’s back painted with purple bruises in the sitcom Good Times, in which she played a child who had been abused. “I wanted to go to college and study business law,” she remembers wistfully. She signed a record deal at 16, and ended up starring in the TV show Fame.

The release of her album Control in 1986 is presented as a major turning point – one that coincided with Jackson firing her father as her manager. Unlike her previous two records, the music is bolshie and purposeful; it’s Jackson locking into her groove and locating her edge. We learn how she first connected with super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Her cultural impact is explained, albeit briefly, by Jackson’s A-list admirers; talking heads include Mariah Carey, Samuel L Jackson and Questlove.

The documentary’s real coup is the archive material Jackson and director Ben Hirsch pull from a decade’s worth of home videos shot by her ex-husband, music video director René Elizondo Jr. The trove of seemingly unguarded moments ranges from their holidays to footage of Jackson in hotel rooms on tour, and even Elizondo Jr’s beachside proposal. To the outside world, Jackson’s confidence was soaring, but the behind-the-scenes footage shows a woman who appears to still be stifled and domineered by men.

Jackson is ultimately in charge of the documentary’s candour, but she frequently uses her friends, family and colleagues to speak for her. She remains tight-lipped on the breakdown of her marriage; it is longtime choreographer Tina Landon who discusses the struggles that led to its demise. Similarly, Jackson’s sister Rebbie provides the fullest answer to whether Jackson had a secret child with her first husband, James DeBarge (a salacious rumour that’s teed up like a grenade).

On the matter of Michael, she says even less. “Guilty by association” is how she describes herself, reflecting on how his child sexual abuse allegations affected her career. We see them writing their 1995 duet Scream in a hotel room, a collaboration she agreed to in the hope of helping him out. For the Jacksons, family loyalty comes first. Still, she distances herself from him during this period, clarifying that she only visited his Neverland ranch once.

For all her reticence to claim it, the series can’t help but assert her value. One scene shows Jackson floating above the Oxford countryside in a hot-air balloon with Richard Branson. When she signed a deal with Virgin Records in 1990, for what was then the largest amount of money any company had ever offered an artist, Branson famously likened her to a Rembrandt that had suddenly become available. It’s hard to know whether this documentary will reposition Jackson as a pop pioneer, but it’s absurd that a musician of her stature should have slipped from view.

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