Janet Jackson., the two-night docuseries about the career and personal life of Janet Jackson that aired over the weekend on Lifetime, was hyped as an intimate portrait of the pop icon that would show sides of her the public rarely sees. That wasn’t a lie, but it’s not the full truth either.
Rarely seen private video, much of it shot by Jackson’s second husband, René Elizondo Jr., is sprinkled throughout the roughly four-hour series, capturing Jackson on vacation in Hawaii, arguing with Jimmy Jam in the studio during the making of her 1989 album, Rhythm Nation 1814, and typing in the bedroom of her brother Michael’s New York City apartment while the two work on the lyrics to their rage-filled hit “Scream.” Present-day Jackson speaks on-camera about a variety of subjects including her first two marriages, her relationship with “Mike,” and the fallout from her 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” which recently was the subject of its own documentary, an installment of The New York Times Presents series called Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson. There is at least some unvarnished honesty captured on film here.
But while four hours — less than that with commercial breaks — sounds like a long time, Janet Jackson. is constantly rushing through major turning points in Jackson’s life, often with a somewhat gossipy bent, without scratching too far beneath the surface of any of them. That title may end with a period, but an ellipsis may have been more appropriate.
While British filmmaker Ben Hirsch directs, two of the executive producers of Janet Jackson. are her brother Randy and herself. 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.
A major theme in Janet Jackson. is how often she’s struggled to feel in command of her identity and image even after she recorded a massively successful album, 1986’s Control, that asserted she had gained that command. The documentary covers the extent to which Jackson’s father, Joe, navigated her early career until she fired him as her manager and went on to record Control, though Jackson bends most of her comments about him toward praise for what a great father he was. Her relationship with Elizondo, who became a creative as well as romantic partner — those are his hands covering Jackson’s breasts on that famous Rolling Stone magazine cover — is characterized by those who knew her as a controlling one.
At the same time, Jackson is clearly no shrinking violet. Whether she’s pushing back on the vocal direction producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis give her on Rhythm Nation or presiding over dance rehearsals in preparation for a tour, the docuseries places great emphasis on how Jackson cleared her own paths as she got older and increasingly expressed herself as she saw fit — even when certain choices, particularly those that emphasized her sensuality, did not sit well with some of her family members.
But there’s also a sense that men, in all sorts of contexts, have constantly thrown obstacles in her way, including her father, her romantic partners, her older brother (after the first allegations of child molestation involving Michael became public, Coca-Cola reneged on a planned multimillion-dollar deal with Janet), and Justin Timberlake. Yes, Jackson talks about the extremely brief Super Bowl nipple reveal that caused an absurd national uproar, mostly in a conversation with Randy that was shot in 2018, when they were contemplating an invitation by Timberlake to join him onstage during that year’s halftime performance. When Randy, a partner at her Rhythm Nation Records label, asks if she wants to participate, she says, “Not really,” then notes with extreme calm, “We have history with CBS.” Uh, yeah. You sure do!
In a brief video shot more recently, she explains that the whole thing was an accident, says she and Timberlake are still friends, and advises everyone to just move on. But she never addresses what happened with the level of detail of the New York Times documentary, nor does she comment on some of the statements that are made in Janet Jackson. For example, her sister Rebbie says Janet was in tears as she walked offstage after the performance, but Janet, who is literally right there throughout this whole docuseries, never corroborates. (Randy, Rebbie, and Tito are interviewed, but the other Jackson siblings either show up only in news clips or not at all.)
Other subjects and issues get pushed out of the frame, including the existence of Jackson’s third husband, Wissam Al Mana, the father of the son she had five years ago at age 50. This is noticeable considering how much time is devoted to her previous spouses, Elizondo and James DeBarge; Jackson denies, by the way, that she had a secret child with him, as has long been rumored. But given how often Janet Jackson. reinforces the notion that other people and the media writ large have robbed the singer of her agency, wanting more from her feels a little wrong.
Several famous colleagues describe how Jackson has functioned as a multitude of women at once: She is a warrior who conducts herself with the determination and seriousness befitting a superstar who summoned a generation to protest social injustice; she’s a sex symbol cavorting on a beach in the “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” video, generating both warmth and heat; and in recent years, in the wake of the Super Bowl controversy and as her significance has been more greatly appreciated, she is someone who generates feelings of protectiveness. As much as fans may want Janet Jackson. to tell us the things we’ve always wondered about her, we also crave a celebration that just lets her be. We want to know so much more, but we also feel she should be left alone. The docuseries acknowledges and plays with that conflict before ultimately resigning itself to it.
“I wanted people to see me and my family how we really are,” Jackson says when asked why she wanted to make this doc. But she has been burned way too many times to let anyone tell her how to throw her own party or to leave any space for someone to crash it. As a consequence, we get a documentary that is satisfying on some basic levels but doesn’t quite match the definitiveness of its title. This attempt to summarize Janet doesn’t feel decisive in the manner of other recent documentaries about legendary musical artists like HBO’s The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart or Showtime’s The Go-Go’s. (For the record, both of those were made with the cooperation of the artists, but they did not act as producers.)
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.