Lifetime's Janet Jackson documentary promises more than it delivers The famously private music legend has the opportunity to open up in a two-part docuseries. But the show leaves many stories left untold.

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Lifetime and A&E's Janet Jackson docuseries promises more than it delivers

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ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Janet Jackson has developed a four-part documentary about her life, and it's already making headlines, even though it doesn't debut until tonight on the Lifetime and A&E channels. News outlets have reported she finally speaks out about a long-standing rumor that she had a secret child fathered by R&B singer James DeBarge when the two were married for a year in the mid-'80s.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JANET JACKSON.")

JANET JACKSON: I could never keep a child away from James. How could I keep a child from their father? I could never do that. That's not right.

KHALID: The docuseries, which airs over two nights, promises more revelations. Here to talk about is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey there, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey.

KHALID: So, Eric, you have already seen the first two hours of this show. So can you just set the scene? What's it been like so far?

DEGGANS: Well, the docuseries is just called "Janet Jackson." - with a period at the end. And I think part of it is that she wants to cap all these rumors, unauthorized biographies, tabloid stories that were created about her over the years. And it also celebrates the 40th anniversary of her first solo record. Janet and her brother, Randy Jackson, are executive producers.

And there's a lot of home movie footage, including this argument between Janet and producer Jimmy Jam while they were recording vocals for the "Rhythm Nation 1814" album. Jam wants her to sing the song a little more forcefully, and Janet is pushing back. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JANET JACKSON.")

JACKSON: You've got to tell me something because it's like I keep singing this over and over. And you did not tell me what I need.

JIMMY JAM: There's no energy. Energy. You know how to sing. You know, put the thing on it.

JACKSON: I've been singing all night, and you keep saying, uh-uh. It's not good. I'm sick of that.

JAM: There's no energy. You can hear the [expletive], the way it sounds. Ain't no energy on that song.

KHALID: So Eric, did you see any other big revelations in the first part of the docuseries that might change how people perceive Janet Jackson?

DEGGANS: Well, I felt like the docuseries had this weird tension. I mean, Janet is famously private, but she created this documentary that promises to reveal a lot. So the docuseries offers these powerful revelations, but then moves on to the next story point without really exploring what had been revealed.

For example, Janet implies that journalists were responsible for spreading this rumor that she had a secret child with DeBarge. But the rumors have also survived because members of DeBarge's his family and DeBarge himself have said publicly that they suspect this child exists. And even though DeBarge appears in the docuseries, they don't explore these questions. There is a moment, however, where Janet talks about DeBarge's struggle with drugs and how she tried to help him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JANET JACKSON.")

JACKSON: There were a lot of nights that I would go searching the streets looking for at 3:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning. I remember times when I would find the pills and I would take them and try to flush them down the toilet. And we would be rolling around on the floor fighting for them. I mean, it's no life for anyone.

DEGGANS: This is one of the moments when she really reveals something that seems intimate that we haven't heard before.

KHALID: What did we learn, would you say, about how Janet Jackson went from being the youngest sibling of the Jacksons and sister to, you know, the famous king of pop, Michael Jackson, into becoming her own huge star in her own right?

DEGGANS: Well, the first episode kind of traces how her father, Joe Jackson, pushed her into performing, first with the Jacksons, then on TV shows like "Good Times" and "Fame" and then on some unsuccessful early solo records. But there's not a lot of detail on how she got the gumption to fire her famously controlling father as a manager and create this series of really successful records with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Now, I assume the docuseries is going to show her reaction to the child molestation allegations against Michael Jackson and that infamous 2004 Super Bowl halftime show where guest performer Justin Timberlake exposed her breasts briefly at the end of the routine. Fans think she was unfairly punished for that, and it would be great to hear her side of the story.

Over the years, though, I think the Jackson family has kind of downplayed, avoided or ignored these dramas that swirl around them. That reflex does not help this docuseries, which too often feels like it stopped short just as it gets to the telling moments.

KHALID: Well, that's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks, as always.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

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