Michael Jackson expertise lands prof in documentary
Merrimack College assistant professor Joseph Vogel is featured in the new Spike Lee documentary “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall.”
The film, relying in part on Vogel as an expert on Jackson’s music and influence, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and on Showtime Feb. 5. It’s scheduled to be released on DVD in coming weeks.
Vogel, who joined Merrimack’s English Department in 2015, is a product of the 1980s and loves that era of music that was notably punctuated by the verve and joy of Michael Jackson’s songs.
He isn’t interested in the gossip or salacious details of Jackson’s life so he wrote the book “Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson,” released by Sterling Publishing in 2011 with the cooperation of Jackson’s family. The website Goodreads gave the book a 4.6 score on a scale of 5, but perhaps just as important, the book got Spike Lee’s imprimatur.
Vogel has been writing about pop culture and film for several years in publications such as The Atlantic, Slate and Huffington Post.
He was raised in Salt Lake City and Davis, Calif. mesmerized by the moonwalking Jackson as a seemingly otherworldly figure.
“I grew up in the 1980s so some of my earliest childhood memories are listening to him and watching him perform,” Vogel said.
By 2000 Jackson had become a spectacle of himself, and audiences had lost focus of the incredible talent that had made him a superstar in the first place, Vogel said. When he went looking for a book about Jackson’s music in the mid-2000s, Vogel found plenty of tomes about the Beatles and Bob Dylan but nothing on the most famous member of the Jackson Five.
“Nobody had done it. I was shocked,” Vogel said. “He was a huge figure.”
Vogel was still in school and his writing career was in its infancy but he made the ambitious decision to write a book about Jackson’s music.
Vogel’s research and writing stretched into years before Jackson gave an interview to “Ebony” magazine in which he said he wanted the focus on him to return to his art. Vogel bought a ticket to London hoping to catch up to Jackson there and show him the draft of his book in 2009.
“I wasn’t sure I would get an interview, but thought if he sees what I’ve got, I have a shot at an interview,” Vogel said.
Jackson died before Vogel could show him the draft, but the strategy eventually worked. Jackson’s brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon and associates such as producers Teddy Riley and Bruce Swedien and keyboardist and composer Brad Buxer gave Vogel access to his materials and agreed to interviews.
“They ended up giving us a lot of photos and rights to use lyrics and stuff like that,” Vogel said.
Each chapter of the book focuses on an album in Jackson’s collection, starting with “Off the Wall,” which is the focus of the Lee documentary. Vogel starts by looking at the cultural context then looks at the studio work and how the album was made before delving into a song-by-song interpretation of the lyrics and music.
Lee bought a copy of the book at Barnes & Noble Booksellers and invited Vogel to speak to his film class at New York University about Jackson’s pioneering music videos.
“One day out of the blue I got a call and it was Spike Lee,” Vogel said. “Totally shocked. It came out of nowhere.”
Later, Lee interviewed Vogel for a documentary on Jackson’s 1987 “Bad” album, then during a book signing in Las Vegas at Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson: One,” Lee asked Vogel to contribute to the “Off the Wall” project.
“It’s always just exciting to be a part of a Spike (project),” Vogel said. “He has a great team. They are really enjoyable to work with. They have done their research and they ask good questions so it’s just basically going into talk to people who love Michael; and it’s going in to talk about his music and legacy.”