Picks and Pans Review: The Jacksons: An American Dream
This look at the Motown singing group of the '70s is more jarring than any disco dance cooked up in that era. It begins sweetly with the post—World War II romance of Joseph Jackson (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) and bride-to-be Katherine Scruse (Angela Bassett). As they raise their nine children in Gary, Ind., the tone changes, and Joseph becomes a martinet, pile-driving his talented brood toward success. In one scene the father whips the clumsy Marlon with a switch for missing a spin move in rehearsal.
The mini, which concludes on Wednesday, only comes alive in the platinum years of the Jackson Five, when the group was churning out such pop-soul hits as "ABC" and "I Want You Back." (Billy Dee Williams plays Motown founder Berry Gordy; Vanessa Williams plays Gordy's aide, Suzanne de Passe, executive producer of this mini. Both are solid. Less convincing is Holly Robinson, of Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, as Diana Ross.) But after each energized performance snippet, the film submerges again into the rancorous family bog.
Director Karen Arthur has no sense of pacing and does a poor job of handling crowd scenes. Then there are all these whiplash transitions and omissions. When the mother joins the family after they have relocated to California, the here to fore short-cropped boys all come to the door sporting towering Afros. It's as comical as an In Living Color sketch. Sometime in the third hour, Tito tells a girl that his family are strict Jehovah's Witnesses, although at no time does the mini offer a hint of religious devotion.
The big challenge is figuring out who is who in the Jackson brood, because each boy is played by three different actors as he ages. Every time you determine which one is Jermaine and which is Jackie, new actors come in and you have to start again. Best of the charming performers is Jason Weaver, who plays Michael as an adolescent. Two Jackson girls, La Toya and Janet, are conspicuously absent.
The music and choreography are most entertaining; a highlight is young Michael watching from the wings as soul great Jackie Wilson (Grady Harrell) sings "Baby Workout." More funk, less dysfunction would have improved The Jacksons.