How Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall" Taught Your Faves To Be A Popstar

21 January 2016, 12:15 | Updated: 8 May 2017, 17:09

Michael Jackson Off The Wall Doc
James Wilson-Taylor

By James Wilson-Taylor

Get on the floor.

This month sees the Sundance premiere of Spike Lee's documentary From Motown To Off The Wall, chronicling the making of that incredible, ground-breaking album that, in 1979, set Michael Jackson on the path to become more than just a talented child star but a genuine musical phenomenon.


The movie release will be attached to a newly remastered recording of the album, providing the perfect excuse to revisit what is, arguably, the greatest pop album of all time.

Thriller may have the insane sales records and Bad has the most hit singles but it is Off The Wall that set the standard for the modern pop megastar. At just 10 tracks, 8 of which are scientifically-proven bangers, their influence is audible in every major floor-filler of the proceeding decades. There is no "Can't Feel My Face" without "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough". Bieber would still be a cherub-faced bop-less irritant if it were not for "Workin' Day And Night". Queen B would never have been "Crazy In Love" if MJ hadn't told her to "Get On The Floor" and dance.

A watershed moment for Jackson, the album marked his break away from The Jacksons. Having already fronted and co-written disco classics for their Epic albums, specifically Destiny, Off The Wall was his statement to the world, announcing "I am a man now and I can hold my own". It's all present in the opening seconds of "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough", that soft bass groove bubbling under murmured dialogue before MJ explodes with his trademark yelp and a wall of sound hits you so hard it becomes impossible not to be swept up in the euphoria. It set the blueprint for future acts looking to launch with impact, the obvious comparisons in recent memory being Justin Timberlake's first post-N Sync album Justified and, again, Bieber's Purpose reinvention.


Off The Wall was also MJ's first collaboration with producer Quincy Jones after meeting him on the set of musical The Wiz. The miraculous, timeless nature of the album sessions would continue to strike gold through their next two records together but neither would quite achieve the joyous heights set out here, the uplifting groove of "Rock With You" playing like audio Prozac.

Even the more paired down moments are expertly crafted, "She's Out Of My Life" painfully honest in its simplicity, encapsulating the end of young love and the heartache of loss. The Stevie Wonder-written "I Can't Help It" brings an infectious yet melancholy hook that is a brave choice for a commercial hit even by today's standards.

Finally, the album acted as the perfect showcase for Jackson's ability as a performer; an old-fashioned showman in the tradition of James Brown and Jackie Wilson before him. In fact, one of the most eagerly anticipated aspects of this new documentary is the presence of never-before-seen footage from The Jacksons Triumph tour, featuring solo numbers from Michael previously thought to be lost.


Spike Lee has already made a point of stating that he intentionally, in both this film and his previous Bad 25 documentary, focused solely on the music and not the controversy or private life of the man at the centre of it. It is true to say that, especially since his sad death in 2009, Jackson's musical legacy is often over-shadowed by the attention given to his various legal troubles and questionable life-choices. While Thriller's influence inevitably lives on thanks to its iconic videos and ever-present title track, Off The Wall can get easily side-lined, its undeniable importance buried in the pre-MTV era the internet has always struggled to represent appropriately. If nothing else, this documentary will hopefully initiate a new generation, not only providing a worthwhile musical education but bringing a feel-good, positive energy back to the dancefloor in the process.

In the meantime, we can relive this wonderful performance of "Rock With You" from the Bad tour in 1988 and wonder at the sight of a true great in his prime.