A&E and Lifetime's two-part, two-night docuseries on Janet Jackson doesn't do justice to the risk-taking pop icon, even though she's an executive producer. "Throughout her two-decade-plus heyday, Janet Jackson was an astonishingly modern pop superstar — a risk-taker with a distinctive voice, a vivid sense of self-presentation and an innate understanding of the scale of the labor required to make world-shaking music," says John Caramanica. "She was the embodiment of authority and command, practically unrivaled in her day and studiously copied by later generations. But throughout Janet Jackson, a four-hour documentary that premiered over two nights on Lifetime and A&E, the highs and lows of Jackson’s career are often presented as a kind of collateral asset or damage. Her brothers were famous first; Jackson was the spunky younger sister who came after. When her brother Michael, then the most famous pop star on the planet, faced his first allegations of sexual impropriety, Jackson lost her opportunity for a lucrative sponsorship with Coca-Cola. When a wardrobe malfunction derailed Jackson’s performance at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, it is her career that’s tanked, and not that of her collaborator, the rising star Justin Timberlake. It’s a curious choice for the first official documentary about one of the most influential musicians of the last few decades. But what makes it even more curious is that Jackson herself is the executive producer (along with her brother, and manager, Randy). It is a bait and switch, using the lure of access and intimacy — cameras followed her for five years, we’re told — as a tool of deflection. Janet Jackson is a sanctioned documentary with the feel of a YouTube news clip aggregation. Jackson is interviewed extensively, but largely provides play-by-play, rarely color commentary. In some parts, especially when she’s shown in conversation with Randy, she’s the one asking questions, especially when the pair return to the family’s Gary, Ind., home. At almost every emotional crossroads, the film drops a whooshing thwack sound effect, an unconscious echo of the Law & Order cha-chunk, and cuts to commercial. That choice renders fraught moments melodramatic, and melodramatic moments comic."
Janet Jackson is constantly rushing through major turning points in Janet Jackson’s life, often with a somewhat gossipy bent, without scratching too far beneath the surface of any of them: "While British filmmaker Ben Hirsch directs, two of the executive producers of Janet Jackson. are her brother Randy and herself," says Jen Chaney. "Therein lies the conundrum: How do you tell the story of an artist who is famous for her efforts to assert control over her career without letting her control the narrative so much that it feels incomplete? The answer, at least in this case, is you can’t. Not only that, but fans of Janet may feel she has every right to tell solely the parts of her story she wants to share in whatever way she sees fit — especially when the docuseries makes the case that she has earned that right." Chaney adds: "I finished Janet Jackson. wishing for an account of her life akin to one of those projects, but given Jackson’s fierce commitment to maintaining some privacy, I’m not sure we’ll ever get one. That’s unfortunate because, as this series correctly argues, Jackson is a fascinating and complicated figure whose contributions to pop culture warrant deep analysis. She deserves a docuseries worthy of all that and truly worthy of her. Because this one isn’t quite it. Period."
Despite the positioning, this was never going to be a “tell-all”: "It was going to be a tell-all that Janet Jackson cares to say to the public at this point in her life," says Julian Kimble. "She’s been intensely private and understandably skeptical of the media throughout her career; there’s a Rolling Stone profile from the Rhythm Nation era that mentions her requesting final approval of the piece. She’s extremely selective in choosing who gets access to her, which makes sense to me considering everything she had to deal with growing up as a member of the Jackson family. She learned to operate within a bubble, so when it comes to what’s behind the velvet rope, so to speak, we’re only going to get what she wants to give. She’s protecting herself and the family here."
Janet Jackson is a powerful portrait of an icon, even if dodges some of the hard questions: "It proves to be a rare crack in the facade for Jackson, who throughout the course of the four-part documentary, filmed over the past five years, retains a remarkable level of self-control even as she revisits some of the most traumatic moments of her life," says Liam Hess, adding: "Some have criticized the documentary for exploring these thorny issues with a mostly genuflecting tone, allowing Jackson to steer the conversations to the topics she feels most comfortable with and to gloss over some of the more divisive subject matter. (Jackson is also credited as a producer on the film.) But really, if anybody deserved the right to tell their story on their own terms, it’s Jackson."
Janet Jackson really didn't like making her A&E and Lifetime docuseries: "The process, she tells me, was not particularly pleasant, mostly because she does not like being interviewed because she doesn’t think she’s very good at soul-searching on demand, at speaking her truth in pithy sound bites," says Robin Givhan, who visited Jackson in London for an Allure profile.