Everything magnificent and unfortunate about the early-’70s animated series The Jackson 5ive can be summed up in one image: bushy-bearded cartoon Berry Gordy. Rankin/Bass Productions teamed up with Motown to produce 23 episodes of The Jackson 5ive—airing across two seasons, in 1971 and ’72—and though no member of the Jackson family was directly involved with the show, Rankin/Bass had the license to use their names, images, and music. So while each episode was structured like every other wacky, kid-friendly comedy about a fictional band—like The Partridge Family, The Monkees, or Josie And The Pussycats—The Jackson 5ive at least pretended to draw on the actual history of the Jacksons. In the first episode of the series, the guys are discovered by Diana Ross (voiced by the real Ross, surprisingly), and multiple episodes make reference to the Jacksons’ hometown of Gary, Indiana. Then there’s the animated Jacksons’ unnamed producer: a nattily attired, hairy-faced dude clearly modeled on Motown’s founder. And he’s not the idealistic “Sound Of Young America” go-getter Gordy either—he’s the burned-out ’70s version, about to begin a downward spiral that would ultimately lead to a parting of the ways with the label’s biggest stars.
It’s not Rankin/Bass’ fault that the real-life stories of Gordy, the Jacksons, and Motown took some dark turns post-1972. As conceived, The Jackson 5ive was as innocuous as The Osmonds cartoon that ABC and Rankin/Bass ran around the same time. About half the plots had the Jackson kids racing to get to a gig; in the other half, Michael would get conked on the head and imagine himself in a version of Alice In Wonderland or Snow White or some other children’s story, with his brothers playing all the other characters. The Jackson 5ive dealt with fame, friendship, jealousy, ecology—all the usual early-’70s Saturday-morning cartoon themes—and had the added benefit of offering positive black role models, along with much livelier, more accomplished music than Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids were turning out.
But the musical numbers on The Jackson 5ive are also part of what makes the show such a weird experience today. While Rankin/Bass deployed flat, highly limited cel animation during the narrative segments, they gave their animators license to get freaky with the songs, using mixed media, psychedelic light shows, and graphics inspired by underground comix. Next to the episode inspired by Rashomon (seriously), there’s nothing more consistently strange in The Jackson 5ive than the sight of these very real people, shrunken down to cartoon size, running through the mill of druggy early-’70s popular culture. The whole series creates a feeling of disconnect: between bubblegum fantasy and gritty reality, and between the actual Motown and the safe, sunny Jacksons that the public always wanted.
Key features: The Jackson none.