“There’s always an underlying situation that you know nothing about,” says Rebbie Jackson, the oldest of the showbiz Jackson clan siblings, referring to her youngest sister, Janet. The “underlying situation” being referenced is Janet’s nearly 10-year-marriage to her collaborator René Elizondo Jr., which she managed to keep secret from the public, even at the height of her superstardom in the ‘90s, until they split in 1999.
Rebbie’s quote, included in the four-episode, career-spanning documentary JANET JACKSON., which premieres Friday on Lifetime, is apt even when speaking more generally about Janet. For as frank as Janet has proven herself to be (especially on the subject of sex), she’s nonetheless maintained an old-school mystique via a fierce sense of privacy and explicit unwillingness to venture into territory that makes her uncomfortable. (There’s a moment in the doc when she starts weeping recalling another ended relationship, her brief marriage to singer James DeBarge when she was 18. She then asks director Benjamin Hirsch if they can move on to another subject.) Janet’s mastered a way of entrancing fans that may read as alien in the context of our contemporary culture, when celebrities have the ability to share their every thought via social media (and many seemingly do): Give them enough so that they crave another bite.
You might think that a splashy documentary event—the product of five years of filming that kicked off during her 2017 tour, we learn via title card—would mark an opportunity to turn toe and bare more of her inner life than ever, but JANET JACKSON. is pretty perfunctory stuff. In the two episodes shared with critics in advance of the premiere, the biggest revelation comes in the form of a denial. Janet is confronted with the longstanding rumor that she gave birth to DeBarge’s baby in the ‘80s, but sent the child away (possibly to be cared for by Rebbie) to continue her career’s ascent. Without a straightforward, “No, it isn’t true,” Janet and Rebbie peel away the ridiculousness of the claim—Janet gained weight during the time from birth control, the supposed baby referred to in the tabloids was actually Rebbie’s, and the very notion of hiding a child is outside of Janet’s morality. “I could never keep a child away from James,” she tells the camera. The potential reveal is teased heavily in the preceding episode’s preview, but it’s ultimately yet another fire at the rumor mill extinguished by yet another Jackson.
Janet states her rationale for commissioning a documentary on herself early on: “It’s just something that needs to be done.” On one hand: fair. So many other pop stars have participated in hagiographic documentaries that say little and do little more than waste some time. Janet is a particularly fascinating case study as someone whose fall from grace—because she dared to have a breast, and to not be the man who actually exposed it on television—was decisive and swift. It’s rare to be able to pinpoint a superstar’s downfall down to the fraction of a second it took for her breast to be exposed during the 2004 Super Bowl. Prior to that, she seemed unstoppable. Her catalog is stunning, her run of hits is jaw-dropping. She stayed humble even when she was arguably the biggest pop star on the planet. She lacked pretension even when her music went out there and the ideas she shared (particularly about women’s sexual expression in public) clashed with the status quo. Janet projected kindness and curiosity, and the tremendous effort she put into her career helped uphold the notion of American meritocracy. (She always was a little bit paranoid that she’d gotten to where she did because of her famous family, though her sister La Toya’s years-long attempt to secure a hit single showed everyone that it takes more than a last name to make a pop star.)
Janet always just seemed like the coolest superstar of her time, which made the raw deal she got rawer. How could we, as a society, do that to Janet? So, if the woman wants to take a victory lap and remind us of her greatness while contextualizing it within a sturdy retelling of a story that those of us who love her know, fine! Overall, JANET JACKSON. is enjoyable enough, but hardly essential. Some past collaborators like Paula Abdul, Missy Elliott, and Regina King show up to say nice things; other celebs like Whoopi Goldberg, Lee Daniels, and Samuel L. Jackson do too. She travels back to her birthplace of Gary, Indiana, with her brother Randy. She discusses the racism she experienced as part of the first Black family in her neighborhood in Encino, California, after her family relocated. She walks us through her early days performing in Vegas and appearing on TV shows like Good Times and Fame. She recorded two albums that did nothing on the charts before exploding into the stratosphere with 1986's Control, an album written and produced alongside former Prince cohorts and burgeoning legends in their own right, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
“I don’t ever remember being asked,” she says of entering showbiz as a young child. “I just remember being put into it.” The first episode of JANET JACKSON., devotes much of its time to the strict rule of Jackson family patriarch Joseph, and Janet in turn devotes much of her screen time to praising the man whose parenting philosophy, per an archival interview featured here, went: “Keep ‘em under control, there’s no way you can go wrong.” When asked in an another interview that appears to date back to the ‘70s whether he ever had to take his children over his knee, Joseph responded, “I have a way.”
A current-day Janet reflects at one point: “My father was a good-hearted guy. He really protected us.” She repeatedly gushes that the entire family is indebted to Joseph for their success. This may very well be true—he worked hard to promote his hard-working children—but the rose-colored hue that Joseph is cast in seems like a narrative regression. It does not present the kind of fresh insight or new information you’d expect from a retelling of an old story. Given the amount of time the Jackson children have spent talking about his iron fist, in fact, what this section of Janet’s documentary amounts to is spin. The notion of abuse—which a few of his children, including Michael, have used in the past to describe his treatment of them—is not explicitly considered. Nor is the “one time” Joseph hit Janet with a belt, which she wrote about in her 2011 book True You. She was young—so young, she’d tell Meredith Vieira in an interview promoting the book, that she couldn’t remember her age at the time. She couldn’t remember what she did wrong, either, only that that he used a belt and left marks on her skin. “I tell this story not to judge him, but to be open and to break the cycle,” she wrote, employing language that people use to describe abuse, without actually using the word. This is to say nothing of the horrific sexual abuse La Toya alleged when promoting her first memoir, 1991's La Toya. La Toya retracted practically everything in the book years later, except curiously, she refused to deny the allegation that she’d been sexually abused by Joseph when asked point blank on the Today show in 2011.
Perhaps time (and her father’s 2018 death) has softened Janet, who spoke about living in fear of the man while promoting her book. JANET JACKSON. glosses over the finer details of Joseph’s alleged treatment of his children, and lands on an assessment that the end justified the means, delivered by Janet herself. “My parents disciplined all of us,” she says. “But that’s how, we as a people, we raised our kids. But you turn around and you give them love to show them…‘I love you, I’m here for you.’ Discipline without love is tyranny and tyrants they were not. They just loved us and wanted us to be the best that we could possibly be. Obviously it worked.” The tone is a slightly gussied up version of sentiment that came from Joseph himself when he was asked about Michael’s claim that he was so scared of Joseph as a kid, he’d throw up: “He ’gurgitated all the way to the bank.”
Just when you might be thinking, “Okay, what exactly are we doing here?,” JANET JACKSON. busts out a trove of never-before-seen footage shot by her aforementioned secret husband René Elizondo Jr. He apparently filmed her behind the scenes for about 10 years, roughly spanning the eras from Control to The Velvet Rope. We see footage of them goofing off, recording sessions for Rhythm Nation 1814 (she sings, to my knowledge, a previously unheard take of the album’s title track in a lower register and with a slightly different melody), and his proposal to her in Hawaii in 1987. The footage of them just being in love is so intimate, it feels illicit—if it weren’t explicitly vetted by Janet (an exec producer on the doc), I’d wonder if we should be watching it at all.
We’re given a glimpse at a side of her rarely seen: frustrated and testy. While recording the enormously influential Rhythm Nation album, which would go on to sell over 12 million copies worldwide and spawn a still unsurpassed seven Top 5 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, Janet fretted openly during an argument with Jam that, “It’s not going right. It’s not happening, that’s all.” The pressure of following Control, a blockbuster in its own right, was weighing on her and she had reached an apparent boiling point. In another scene, she and Elizondo sit alone in a room while he attempts to inflate her ego, telling her: “You have everything it takes. No one can touch you.” Still, she recounts having dreamed before opening the night of her Rhythm Nation tour that only a few people showed up. Janet has been fairly open about her self-esteem issues throughout her career, particularly during the promotion of The Velvet Rope, when she talked about being depressed. But here we get to see what that looked like on the other side, how someone capable of such greatness (and the ensuing popularity that affirmed it) could nonetheless doubt herself. It’s hard to explain, which is exactly why it’s important to show it. If only more time in JANET JACKSON. were spent treating this documentary like the opportunity that it is.