“When you see somebody’s work you can see the details and if they actually truly love what they do—if they really do pay attention to the craft,” Kobe Bryant says. “I think this generation, their perception has become skewed. The love for the craft becomes secondary to the love of the fame and notoriety. My generation, the Jordan generation, Bird, Magic, Michael Jackson, they focused on what they loved to do.”
That quote from the notoriously uncompromising NBA vet was made not in the context of a Lakers retrospective, nor in response to a question about today’s young athletes, but rather during a documentary about the actual last days of disco. Its director, Spike Lee, weaves commentary from Bryant—and from a diverse array of famous talents, including non-musical ones like Misty Copeland and Rosie Perez—throughout the hour and a half of Showtime’s Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off The Wall, premiering Friday. The film gleefully pays tribute to Jackson at a moment when he first staked his claim to all-time-great status, before he was engulfed in image problems. In doing so, it forcefully highlights the dedication, skill, and vision that went into some of the most joyful music that modern times have produced.
I’d finished watching From Motown to Off the Wall shortly before news broke that Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, had died at age 74. Jackson and White are connected in ways obvious and not. Viewers of the documentary learn that some record executives had wanted White to produce Jackson’s 1979 solo debut Off the Wall, which makes sense given that Jackson was making the kind of sumptuous, full-band, R&B-rooted disco for which Earth, Wind & Fire had helped set the template (of course, both that band and Off the Wall were not neatly categorizable in any genre). Jackson instead went with Quincy Jones, resulting in one of the greatest creative partnerships of all time. Wondering what could have been is silly; “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” stand next to Earth, Wind & Fire songs like “September” in the pantheon of the era’s everlasting hits. As the documentary notes, Off the Wall’s final song, “Burn This Disco Out,” was a symbolically apt title as pop—and Jackson—moved on to new styles as the decade turned.