My focus here is not about envelope-pushing but accurate, entertaining family-portraying, as ABC's broadcast tries to do.
The title and clip-and-photo-laden opening credits set the tone of this four-hour movie. It's not an exposé by any means, but a retrospective history meant to make us feel fuzzy.
As if to cue those sentiments, the cinematography relies on soft, hazy, sepia tones during Joe and Katherine Jackson's courtship. Occasionally flat backgrounds add a postcard quality to the scenes.
Could something that looks that nice be hiding a monster? Joe is physically brutal toward his brood, no question. But when you hear his little speeches about "family," his "vision," and his children's "dreams," it's clear that someone is adjusting the sympathy dial in his favor.
In that way, the writing is unadventurous. In other ways, it's redundant and heavy-handed. A symbol of Joe and Katherine's love, for instance, can't just hover over their rotting marriage ironically, but must be seized by one of the spouses and dashed to pieces.
The actors do their darnedest with the material. From threatening glowers to dawning fatherly pride, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs's single-minded taskmaster is amazing to watch. Angela Bassett pulls off gaspy, girly innocence and feminine ferocity with equal aplomb.
As for the maturing, all-important Jackson brothers, we get several sets of actors whose talents vary. I believe in young Tito and teen Jackie. As the older Michael, Wylie Draper lacks charisma--not good since he's supposed to carry the film in the second half. But he's got the Klingon scowl and the jerky moves down pat.
Jason Weaver, as the Michael who first wowed Motown and then the masses, earns his own paragraph. He sings confidently, dances boldly, and acts believably as the mischievous and oversensitive pop idol. He could have made the adult Michael's eccentricities more painfully human instead of just peculiarly there.
The other brothers are okay, but unmemorable. I must mention that the older Jermaine stands out--but not because he's good.
Billy Dee Williams, a Motown Productions loyalist, is cartoonishly amusing as Berry Gordy. Vanessa Williams does well enough as manager Suzanne de Passe, although just standing there in glamorous close-ups could have still flattered her real-life counterpart (and executive producer)!
Speaking of imitators, would anyone mistake the recreated performances for footage from authentic Jackson 5 videos? Maybe not. The bodies and screams of spectators overwhelm some shots more than they should.
The Jacksons is sometimes great, sometimes mediocre. That averages out to fairly good overall.
Think even a just-decent Jackson project deserves to be preserved with care? Consider getting the DVD version or, for a purely musical experience, the soundtrack.