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When it comes to sheer magnitude of impact, few pop artists have come close to the legacy of the Janet Jackson. And while her story is certainly well-known in many aspects, the throughline of her life has left room for much speculation and heresy. For THR Presents, powered by Vision Media, Benjamin Hirsch and Rick Murray, the director and executive producer of Lifetime’s new four-part docuseries Janet Jackson, opened up about the years-long process of telling Jackson’s story in the right way.
The two British filmmakers are hardly an obvious choice for spearheading the telling of Jackson’s life. “I mean, do we look like your usual Janet fans? Two white guys from the U.K.?” asked Murray. “Janet was, in our country, as well as the U.S., a megastar, an icon. I sort of closely followed her career and heard about her music during the ’80s, ’90s, and onwards, but I don’t think I ever thought that I would be sitting in the same room as her one day making a documentary film about her.”
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Hirsch and Murray were connected with Jackson through a mutual friend when she was seeking filmmakers to capture behind-the-scenes footage for her State of the World tour in 2017. “We were recommended to her as people that could do the job,” Murray said. “And I made the decision to send them our best cameraman/director who, you know, he sort of shoots verité. We were really looking for someone who would just come as one person and do the whole thing. So then [Hirsch] went to shoot the behind-the-scenes documentary on the tour. And from that, something much bigger and more exciting bloomed.”
Spending time backstage filming proved highly inspirational and illuminating for Hirsh. “She hasn’t really told her life story. She’s never really opened up. So I wondered if that’s what we can do,” Hirsch recalled. “It certainly took me a few weeks to gain her trust and get her to open up and talk to me about things in her life that weren’t to do with the tour. But once we’d got that trust, and once I managed to get her to sit down for a three-hour interview — she said she could spare half an hour for me, and it turned into three hours of us just chatting on camera. Once she opened up to me, I was like, ‘There’s definitely something bigger that can be done if she’s willing to open up, she’s in that place in her life where she wants to talk about her past and her future. So we should try and pitch her life story.’”
Naturally, making a documentary about Jackson’s life necessitates tackling some highly delicate topics, like the abuse allegations against her brother, Michael, or her widely publicized wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl halftime show. “It was gauging what kind of space Janet was in,” Hirsch explained, “whether she felt like she would talk about those things in that moment. And then for me, having the confidence to ask those kinds of more sensitive questions. But I think with Janet, she would always tell me if she didn’t want to talk about something.”
“I think the final product, the final film, covers everything,” said Murray. “There is no subject that people know about the Jacksons, or Janet, told through her lens, that we don’t cover, and all her responses are in her own words.”
Jackson herself served as a co-executive producer on the film and was involved in the documentary process from its earliest stages. “She was involved throughout the process, from rough cut all the way to final delivery,” Hirsch revealed. “She was collaborating with us to make changes, put things in, take things out, that sort of thing.”
The film features plenty of archival footage from Jackson’s storied career, much of it never-before-seen tapes from her personal life. “Usually, you probably look at everything that you’ve got in the archive, and then go and shoot interviews,” said Murray. “But just because of the way this project organically happened, we did it the other way around. So by the time we’re looking at all the old archive footage, we’re in [COVID] lockdown at this point. And we’ve already got all the interviews, we can’t really do any more. It just wasn’t viable at that time.”
Celebrating Jackson’s career and legacy ultimately takes the forefront of the series’ perspective. “One of my favorite parts of the film is the moment where Janet finally gets the recognition she deserves when she releases Control,” Hirsch said. “Because she’s happy. She’s been in the shadow of her family prior to that, and she hadn’t quite found success with those first two albums that she released. Then she partners with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and she partners with Paula Abdul and all of a sudden, this icon is born. And I just loved that moment in the film.”
This episode of THR Presents is brought to you by Lifetime.
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