Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson (Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

Janet Jackson gets pretty raw pretty early in her new four-hour documentary. In the opening minutes of the first of two episodes premiering Friday night simultaneously on Lifetime and A&E, the singer tears up at the sight of a mural of The Jackson Five as she’s being driven around her hometown of Gary, Ind. It’s a lovely, humanizing moment for a woman who has seemed so untouchable in recent years. Famously private, with this documentary, which she executive produced along with brother Randy, Janet is opening up like never before.

“It’s just something that needs to be done,” she tells the doc’s producer, explaining that this is her way of regaining control of her own narrative.

Of course, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. The past few years have seen a growing interest in revisiting and reevaluating Janet’s story, particularly in light of the way she was treated after the disastrous 2004 Super Bowl half-time show. After Justin Timberlake was invited to headline the 2018 Super Bowl half-time show, the hashtag #justiceforjanet began trending. Then, late last year, FX and The New York Times released Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson. That documentary focused primarily on what became known as “nipplegate” and its aftermath, but also attempted to examine the scandal in the context of Janet’s career and the national mood of the early 2000s. (Timberlake is rumored to have participated in a later episode of the new doc.)

The new, self-titled doc—styled Janet Jackson., in a seeming reference to her landmark fifth album—however, gives the iconic singer a chance to tell her story in her own words. And there’s a ton of ground to cover, from growing up the youngest of nine siblings, five of whom became world famous before she was eight years old, to becoming a massive pop star in her own right. Of course, any documentary produced under the imprimatur of its subject has to be viewed with at least a little skepticism. Considering the Jackson family’s complicated history, it’s certainly worth bearing that in mind here. At the same time, it’s unfair to expect Janet to answer for the alleged sins of certain members of her family, or to expect her to view her own family in the same way the public does. All of which is to say that if there are areas she chooses to avoid or if certain topics seem to have a more benign gloss in her telling, I’m willing to give her a pass. Ultimately, this is the story that Janet Jackson wants to tell about herself, and there’s absolutely value in that.

The first two episodes cover Janet’s childhood through the 1980s. These are some highlights:

Young Janet Jackson with father Joe
Young Janet Jackson with father Joe (Photo: courtesy of A&E Networks)

Joe Jackson: Disciplinarian

In the ’90s, both Michael and LaToya Jackson alleged that their father, Joe, was abusive when they were growing up. Janet, however, has maintained that while her father was tough on her, she did not consider him to be abusive, and that remains her position. In the new doc, she expresses immense gratitude and admiration for Joe’s ambition for his children. “It was because of my father that I had the career I had,” she says. “We owe so much to my father.”

Of course, it must be said that one sibling’s experience of a parent isn’t necessarily indicative of another’s. “Janet is one of the few people in the family that would stand up to my pop,” older brother Tito says. “She’s tough. My father admired her for being that way.”

“My parents disciplined all of us,” she explains, summing up her view on the issue: “Discipline without love is tyranny, and tyrants they were not.”

Janet Jackson with James DeBarge in 1984
Janet Jackson with James DeBarge in 1984 (Photo: Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images)

Baby DeBarge

Rumors that she and first husband James DeBarge had a baby in the mid-80s and gave it up for adoption have dogged Janet for years. In Episode 2, she addresses those rumors head-on for the first time.

“I could never keep a child away from James,” she says. “How could I keep a child from their father? I could never do that. That’s not right.”

Janet Jackson with René Elizondo Jr. in 1994
Janet Jackson with René Elizondo Jr. in 1994 (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

René Elizondo’s Raw Footage

One of the advantages of Janet’s involvement in the doc is the access the filmmakers get. Each episode features interview clips not only with Jackson family members like siblings Tito, Randy and Rebbie as well as Janet’s mother Katherine, but also a who’s-who of entertainment giants: Missy Elliot, Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopie Goldberg, Q-Tip, Paula Abdul, Regina King, Norman Lear.

But Janet also seems to have called in one favor that trumps all those talking heads. Ex-husband René Elizondo Jr. provided the filmmakers with nearly a decade’s worth of never-before-seen home video footage that he shot of Janet during their relationship. The footage, which includes the moment Elizondo proposed to her, shows a playful, intimate side of the pop star. It also gives us a glimpse into the sometimes agonizing process of making a hit record, as when Janet and producer Jimmy Jam get into an epic argument while recording a track for Rhythm Nation 1814.

What’s next?

The final two episodes of Janet Jackson., which air Saturday night, January 29, promise to delve into the turbulent 1990s, starting with allegations of molestation leveled at Michael Jackson. And we’re sure to get Janet’s definitive take on the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime show and the public shaming that followed.