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A&E and Lifetime's Janet Jackson. docuseries does a better job of flattering its central pop idol in easy ways than honoring her in more challenging ones

  • "In the first two of its four parts, the doc depicts a rising star whose decision to take her career by the reins represented a split from her famous family, through old footage as well as interviews with Jackson closer to the present day," says Daniel D'Addario. "Those interview segments, though, struggle to reveal much about a figure whose poise, and whose commitment to privacy, makes Janet Jackson a challenge. Janet Jackson seems at times to be operating at cross-purposes with Janet Jackson — which would make for an intriguing battle of wills, but for the fact that the real Janet wins so handily." D'Addario adds: "It’s hard not to feel, though, that Janet Jackson does a better job of flattering its central pop idol in easy ways than honoring her in more challenging ones. If Jackson’s artistic legacy is indeed up there with the all-time pop greats — Prince, Madonna, Jackson’s own brother — then she can withstand more complication. Indeed, fans of hers ought to welcome it, to better understand a figure who seems perpetually to elude Hirsch’s grasp. For now, Jackson remains fascinating but enigmatic — a star about whom we’ll perpetually want to know more. And viewers will have known that before investing the time in a doc that can’t quite figure out its namesake."


    • Janet Jackson promises more than it delivers: "After watching two of the four hours A&E and Lifetime will air over two days, I thought this artist — who has spent her entire career protecting her public image and private moments — wasn't really prepared to allow a fully incisive documentary about her own life," says Eric Deggans. "It feels as if there is a tension inside Janet Jackson.; the docuseries often provides interesting revelations, only to scurry away from big moments for the next story point – as if unwilling to dig too deep into painful memories or controversial times."
    • Janet Jackson is a choreographed dance partnering thunder and calm: "The reality of Janet Jackson contradicts the picture conservatives and the entertainment media painted in the wake of that incident," says Melanie McFarland. "She is a notoriously private person, which her four-part documentary's director Ben Hirsch acknowledges by contrasting her recessive personality against the screams and passion that greeted her everywhere she went at the height of her celebrity. When such clips tear through the calm of the performer's confessionals, we appreciate how jarring fame is for a woman raised to be a performer despite her desire for a normal life – something she could never have as the daughter of Joseph Jackson and Michael's little sister. Janet Jackson announces itself as the definitive, official perspective on the singer's life with the period at the end of the title even if, at 55, her career is far from finished. Quite the opposite – this examination of Jackson's life, executive produced by the artist and her brother Randy, arrives at a time when the six-time Grammy Award winner is positioned for a resurgence. It's also a reminder of her family's incredible story along with a subtle invitation to reassess her place in that lineage."
    • Janet Jackson feels too controlled: "Even with all the hours of detail, Janet Jackson still feels an arm’s length away," says Brittany Spanos. "We are getting her story, but we are not getting any closer to the mystery of who she is or how she felt navigating a complicated life as one of the most famous stars in music history. The product is as well-produced as any one of her albums, a carefully manicured look at a pop icon who is saving the real soul-searching for somewhere off-camera. Painful moments are shuffled in the midst of massive career wins, as if the latter couldn’t possibly exist without the other. Troubling figures whose actions and lives often affected her own are given nothing more than a brief explanation before being swept under the rug of her life entirely...The second half could prove to be explosive, or it could simply glaze over the decades of Janet Jackson lore that have often left her image and career often in a tailspin, caused often by forces beyond her control. For better or for worse, Janet Jackson puts the star back in the drivers seat, and there’s no way she wants to detour into the unknown."
    • Janet Jackson’s iron grip on Janet Jackson has produced an initial two chapters that are feather-light on revelations: "That first half is an authorized autobiography in the worst way: empty, glossy, bloated and wholly indifferent to what other people might find interesting about its subject," says Inkoo Kang. "In one of her talking-head outfits, Jackson sports long curls, a beret, a thick scarf and a sweater — all in dark colors against a dark backdrop. The ensemble is a visual metonym for the project’s opacity: She reveals so little that it’s the lack of disclosure that becomes most conspicuous."
    • Janet Jackson is enjoyable enough, but hardly essential: "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," says Rich Juzwiak. "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." 
    • For all the celebrities who appear in Janet Jackson, this special is surprisingly very grounded: "A lot of the issues of her life will resonate widely — coming into adulthood and standing up to her father, emerging from the shadows of her brothers and family, loving a drug addict, the ups and downs of marriage and divorce, being recognized for her contributions," says Ronda Racha Penrice. "While none of us can relate to Jackson’s life as a superstar, her struggles on her way to becoming one do hit home."
    • After watching Janet Jackson, you may strongly suspect Jackson would have been better off as a lawyer: "The documentary was made with Jackson’s cooperation," says Mick LaSalle. "She says that after years of other people telling her story, she wanted to get her own version out there. The result is a mixture of candor and obfuscation, and with some of the narrative tactics you find in cheap documentaries — such as a cliffhanger that suggests something salacious, but then turns out to be nothing."

    TOPICS: Janet Jackson., A&E, Lifetime, Janet Jackson, Documentaries