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‘Janet Jackson’ Review: Superstar Opens Up But Remains in Control in A&E/Lifetime Docuseries

Believe the hype: The music star is a master of the TV tell-all

Believe all the hype about Lifetime and A&E’s two-night special “Janet Jackson.” It’s truly a side of the global superstar the public has never witnessed, including revealing never-before-seen footage from her life. The “Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty” singer is a unicorn in the music industry in that her stardom stretches back to the 1970s but still has relevancy today, a fact supported by the social media success of her recent cover of Allure magazine. It can’t be overstated what Janet Jackson represents as a woman and a woman of color in the music industry and the entertainment industry overall, especially in 2022. To still be standing is one thing, but to have something to say is golden. And Janet Jackson has plenty of tea to spill. 

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. While none of us can relate to Jackson’s life as a superstar, her struggles on her way to becoming one do hit home.

In the first night of episodes provided to critics ahead of Friday’s premiere, Jackson manages to satisfy those who have followed her for most of her career while also introducing herself to younger audiences who may be less familiar. That story starts in Gary, Indiana, in a tiny house of a family with nine kids with a mother and father who both had to work hard to make ends barely meet. And Janet was the youngest of them all. With confidence and true understanding, she shares how deeply rooted her story is in those humble beginnings and the stardom her older brothers — Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and, of course, Michael — achieved as the Jackson 5 that allowed them to escape it. But none of it, she stresses, would be possible without her father.

Before there was a Richard Williams, embodied by Will Smith in “King Richard” as the controversial patriarch who pushed his daughters Venus and Serena to tennis superstardom, there was Joe Jackson, who had already created a similarly impossible feat in the music industry. Joe Jackson’s notorious strictness, she clarifies, came from not just love but his experience as a Black father responsible for raising nine children into full adulthood in a tough city. Her brother, manager and fellow series exec producer Randy’s sobering note that all his childhood friends from Gary are either dead or imprisoned further drives home how her father didn’t feel he had the luxury of being a “Leave It to Beaver” or “My Three Sons” role model. Some have contrasted Joe’s aggressive treatment of his children as a manager and father with young Janet’s role on the late-’70s sitcom “Good Times” as Penny, an abused child — but his famous daughter charges him with nothing of the sort. (Still, at one point she admits that he blocked her plans to go to college so she could focus on her music career, which he also played a heavy hand in developing early on.)

Because the “Rhythm Nation” leader has rarely addressed the issue of race so personally, her recounting of her own uncomfortable racial run-ins as a child hit hard. Viewed from a modern lens, it seems unimaginable that white people in Encino, California, actively opposed the Jackson family, American superstars, moving into their neighborhood purely because of their race. The same goes for her blatant experiences of racism in school, where white classmates rubbed her skin to see if her color would disappear or touched her hair because it was so different from their own. 

Her candor in speaking about her first marriage to James DeBarge, who hailed from another musical family group DeBarge, is another surprise. It’s hard to recall many or any instances where she’s publicly shared the toll his drug addiction took on her, and the impact it had on her work on the TV show “Fame” and more. She’s also uncharacteristically outspoken denying rumors that the two had a secret child before the marriage collapsed in 1985 after just over a year.

James DeBarge is also interviewed, sharing details of the short-lived union in a way that makes Janet’s account even more powerful. Other members of Janet’s family also participate — including sister Rebbie, brother Tito and mother Katherine — giving this four-part docuseries a truly intimate feel that lives up to the buzz.

She also opens up about her professional challenges, particularly in emerging from the sizable shadow of her super-superstar brother Michael — whose outsize fame and negative media attention she addresses on the series’ second night. Janet Jackson makes it clear that she earned her fame on her own, beginning with her days working in Las Vegas as a child and as adult who writes her own music and is the architect of her own career and creative vision. But she also acknowledges the role played by her many collaborators — including ex-husband and longtime creative director René Elizondo Jr., producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, choreographer Paula Abdul and more.

The walls certainly tumble down in “Janet Jackson.” While she is absolutely in control of the topics discussed and the details shared, her curation is spot on. By going deeper than we’ve ever seen her go before, she masters the TV tell-all, giving audiences what they tuned in for while also leaving them wanting more.  

“Janet Jackson” airs in two parts on Jan. 28 and Jan. 29 on A&E and Lifetime.