The Janet Jackson Documentary Has Fascinating Footage but Few Revelations
The pop superstar remains coy about many of the topics the world is most anxious to hear her address.
Around the halfway mark of her new documentary, Janet Jackson snaps. “I don’t need this,” she tells producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis while recording the 1989 album Rhythm Nation 1814. “I don’t need you guys’ attitude. I mean, this has just gone too far. I’m going home.” They’ve been working long hours to put together the follow-up to Jackson’s career-redefining 1986 album Control, which allowed the singer to escape her father’s influence and make the music she wanted to make. Jam and Lewis want more “energy” from her vocals. They’re growing impatient, and so is she.
The Janet Jackson of, say, 1982—the one struggling to sidestep her siblings’ shadow in an industry she’d considered leaving behind for law school—probably would have backed down. But not the Janet of 1988. That Janet had found her voice. Creative disagreements are part of the process, and even casual Jackson fans know that her partnership with Jam and Lewis wasn’t damaged by a few charged words. They would go on to produce most of her subsequent albums, including her most recent, 2015's aptly titled Unbreakable.
This footage is among the most revealing bits of Janet Jackson., the four-part series that aired on A&E and Lifetime, if only because it is incredible to see the otherwise invisible work required of a superstar striving to perfect her craft. In fact, there’s a lot of great footage in the documentary, which was directed by Benjamin Hirsch (Idris Elba: No Limits), who had access to intimate scenes that Jackson's second husband, René Elizondo Jr., captured. Spending time with the increasingly private artist is a treat, especially when we see her at work on music-video sets and in rehearsal rooms. Unfortunately, that sort of access only reveals the details Jackson wants us to know.
Pop-star documentaries have become ubiquitous in the past several years; everyone has one, from Katy Perry and Taylor Swift to Blackpink and Charli XCX. Many are produced in conjunction with artists’ record labels or publicity teams, resulting in surface-level portraits designed to generate one or two headlines that make them seem enlightening—a far cry from the days when Bob Dylan’s Dont Look Back and Madonna’s Truth or Dare felt novel. It’s only natural that Jackson would join in on the craze, and for good reason: There are endless aspects of her career worth exploring. Unfortunately, Janet Jackson. doesn’t do so in a particularly thoughtful way. The fact that her decades-old (and relatively inconsequential) spats in the studio provide the series’ most probing footage is no accident.
Janet Jackson.'s first half focuses on its subject's storied family, who lived a humble life in Indiana before The Jackson 5 hit the big leagues. Information about the patriarch Joe Jackson’s domineering nature is already widely known, as is Janet’s quest to gain control over her career after her first two albums bombed. Across the opening two episodes, you’re left with the sense that the juicy stuff will come later, once she is mired in showbiz politics and forced to suffer the unrelenting sexism that resulted from her performance with Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004. But when it comes time to address those topics, Janet Jackson. mostly remains coy.
Unlike the gripping New York Times documentary Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson (available to stream on Hulu), the series offers little explanation of what happened during that infamous performance. The now-ubiquitous term “wardrobe malfunction,” coined in a statement that Jackson and Timberlake released to explain the exposed nipple that became one of the decade’s biggest scandals, is never mentioned. Her deepest feelings about the whole ordeal—the misogynistic responses, the damage it did to her career, the theory that maybe it was all a publicity stunt—are frustratingly vague. (She forgives Timberlake in the final part of the series, even if her fans have not.) Most of what Jackson says about the matter is said to her brother Randy instead of directly to the camera. It plays as though Hirsch had ceded control of the conversation to the Jacksons themselves, in turn flattening a complex topic.
Almost as soon as Randy and Janet start discussing it, Randy points out that their brother Michael was about to stand trial for child-molestation charges at the same time his sister’s fracas was unfolding. “It was a really difficult time on our family, just dealing with that,” Randy says, with Janet concurring. “The media just wanted something to feed off of.” This is a shallow assessment of both the Super Bowl incident and the allegations against Michael, which the Jacksons unsurprisingly dismiss without a second thought. (The buzzy, controversial 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland, which details Jackson’s history of alleged pedophilia, also goes unmentioned.)
Maybe none of this is a surprise; it certainly doesn’t kill Janet Jackson.’s entertaining velocity. But it also doesn’t serve fans anxious to hear from someone who has rarely been seen in public or granted many substantive interviews in recent years. When I requested time with Jackson and/or Hirsch, Jackson’s publicist said, “Unfortunately, we won't have anyone available for interviews." Because she hasn't done much press to promote the documentary, it seems as though she is determined to skirt the many questions left unanswered. “It’s tough for me to talk about that time,” she told Allure in what seems to be her only major interview. And she’s well within her right never to discuss it—or anything else—again. But why do a documentary if you don’t want to reveal yourself?
All said, Jackson remains a great cultural force, one of few pop stars who established the template that her successors still emulate. She's a new mother who prefers to live a quiet life out of the spotlight, and more power to her for that. But we ask questions of celebrities because we care, because their art means something to the world. If only Janet would let us ask them.