Jackie’s Back!, a 1999 “mockumentary” for television directed by Robert Townsend and starring Jenifer Lewis, is a harmless trifle with plenty of silliness. The problem is, it isn’t very funny. The story concerns Jackie Washington (Lewis), a down-on-her-luck soul music diva planning a comeback concert. During the week leading up to it, she is followed by a British interviewer named Edward Whatsett St. John (Tim Curry). Through this device, Jackie’s self-aggrandizement, delusions, and uncontrolled ego are on full view—and eventually stripped away. We are also introduced to Jackie’s beleaguered daughter/assistant Antandra (T.V. Blake) as well as her older, estranged daughter Shaniqua (Tangie Ambrose). Additionally there’s a cavalcade of celebrities playing themselves, commenting on their respective experiences (mostly outrageous) with Jackie. It’s all meant to be frothy, campy fun but unfortunately the movie is stale and obvious.
After a prologue by Curry’s character (spoofing Masterpiece Theater), we see Jackie arrive in a limo at the performance venue the morning of the concert day. Wearing a shocking bright-blue fur, she berates the limo driver; when she spots the camera, she instantly breaks out in a broad grin and basks in the glory of her assumed fame. Once she gets settled in her dressing room the movie gets off the ground. Curry asks how she began in show business and thus begins the first of several flashbacks featuring pastiche songs (by Marc Shaiman, co-screenwriter Mark Alton Brown, and Lewis). It seems Jackie started out as “Little” Jackie Washington with her breakout hit, the Holland-Dozier-Holland imitation “Yield! (Before You Hit Me With Your Love).” Under fabricated period stills, headlines, and album covers, we hear clips of some of her later hits: parodies of early 70s funk, soul power ballads, and disco. (Some of the titles are “Suki, Suki Mama,” “Take Your Jeri Curl and Go,” and “Wednesday Night Fever.”) Jackie even performed at the Oscars in 1972. However, she since faded into obscurity.
As Jackie, Jenifer Lewis is all breasts and brashness. When she speaks, she projects as if she’s onstage at a 5,000 seat auditorium. She’s queen of her own universe, oblivious to external reality. However, she’s completely dependent on her daughter, Antandra, who takes care of all details and cleans up her mother’s messes. She’s a mouse of a girl who slouches and cowers at everyone. (Needless to say, by the end of the movie she finds self-confidence.) The preparations for the concert are total chaos: nothing seems to go right. One dreadfully unfunny sequence involves a deaf rehearsal pianist (David Hyde Pierce). Jackie orders him to “vamp” and he responds, “Cramp?” How can Robert Townsend seriously expect anyone to laugh at this ancient shtick? Interspersed with all of this are interviews with celebrity guest stars such as Bette Midler, Jackie Collins, Liza Minnelli, Diahann Carroll, Penny Marshall, and many, many others. These interviews seem to serve no purpose other than to make the audience say, “Hey look! It’s Rosie O’Donnell!” The stars offer anecdotes that are meant to be much funnier than they are. Actually, the vast majority is not funny whatsoever; it’s almost like the guest stars are there to kill time and lend credibility to the project. What exactly is the point of having Sean Hayes (in a bathrobe holding a cocktail) and Eva Marie Saint talk about Jackie Washington? Why on earth would they even have an opinion about her? There’s no rhyme or reason to the selection of celebrities; it’s as if Townsend grabbed whoever was available. Plus, the script (such as there is) can’t even sustain its own logic. When some of the celebrities discuss Jackie, she’s an infamous legend. In other scenes, no one has heard of her.
The movie is full of sequences and jokes that don’t work. You stare at the screen, stupefied at the failed attempts at humor. In the course of Jackie discussing her four failed marriages we’re introduced to her first husband, a football star. (Charles Barkley, a basketball star, is interviewed to attest to what a great athlete he was. Couldn’t the filmmakers find any famous footballplayers to serve this purpose?) Apparently the marriage went wrong when Jackie stabbed him with an afro pick. (She insists that he fell on it.) I suppose it doesn’t really matter that afro picks aren’t robust enough to cause serious injury. What bothers me is the laziness of the humor. The writers simply want to use an afro pick in some humorous context, assuming the audience will laugh in recognition of this instrument, just as they assume the audience will laugh when it hears the words, “Jeri curl.” It’s as if the writers are taking the black audience down a memory lane of late-twentieth century black culture and leaving it at that. The same phenomenon occurs when we see a clip of “Whipped Creme: Coco’s Revenge,” a blaxploitation film starring Jackie. The parody isn’t well executed or funny at all. Townsend and the screenwriters are relying on the audience to do the work for them—they want the audience to remember all the silly blaxploitation films they’ve seen, fill in the gaps themselves, and laugh at the reference.
One of the more puzzling things about Jackie’s Back! is that it occasionally attempts moments of genuine pathos. In one sequence Jackie returns to her hometown of Kinloch, Missouri (Jenifer Lewis’s actual hometown) and is brutally confronted with the fact that the residents either resent her or don’t know who she is. Sitting on a stoop with Curry, she browses through a family album and we learn that not only did Jackie finance the higher education of all of her brothers and sisters, none of whom have a relationship with her, but that she is herself uneducated. Townsend is trying to get at some of the bitter ironies that face some people in show business (particularly those who grew up poor and black)—they achieve fame and fortune but can never call any place home. But the scene is jarring in the midst of the film’s regular silliness. Additionally, the climax of the movie features an emotional reconciliation between Jackie and her other daughter, Shaniqua, in which they learn to accept each other and in turn, Jackie learns some humility. These abrupt shifts in tone may not surprise anyone who saw Townsend’s B.A.P.S or Meteor Man, two giddy comedies that also have brief serious moments shoehorned into the script. In the case of B.A.P.S., the two heroines are black ghetto princesses who stay at a rich white man’s mansion and clash with high society in one farcical situation after another. But once in a while we get glimpses of Halle Berry’s character’s desperate desire to break out and become respectable. (It’s an abysmal movie.) Meteor Man is a decent superhero spoof with occasional dramatic messages advocating for urban communities to collectively stand up to crime and fight decay. (The moral is that we shouldn’t have to rely on a “Meteor Man” to save us.) Probably Townsend is impatient with dumb comedic antics and wants to say something meaningful about the modern black experience but as it stands, he cannot bring off the formula of wacky comedy peppered with bursts of sentimentality. (I have not seen his earlier efforts, Hollywood Shuffle and The Five Heartbeats, which I understand are much better.)
There are a few bright spots in Jackie’s Back! Don Cornelius (of Soul Train) has a hilarious interview where he declares without a trace of irony that “Little” Jackie Washington had “more raw talent than Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder.” There’s an amusing scene in which Jackie barks at a lighting director for a “bastard amber” gel. However, the best parts of the film feature Whoopi Goldberg as Jackie’s estranged sister Ethyl, a nurse. Ethyl claims she wrote Jackie’s first hit and she was supposed to be onstage the night Jackie was discovered and it was her yellow dress that Jackie stole. This is the kind of role that some might expect Goldberg to phone in, but she gives it her all and reminds you how wonderful she is. Her bitterness and seething anger are incredibly intense, yet hilariously perfect. She gives Jackie’s Back! what it lacks: real edge and earned laughs.
Only a lucky handful of people got to enjoy the brilliance that was and is Jackie’s Back! when it premiered on cable’s Lifetime network in 1999, but for over ten years the film has continued to garner a worldwide following, and rightfully so. When mockumentaries are done properly, they are a joy to behold (great examples of same include the works of Christopher Guest, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap!), and this one, developed by Robert Townsend and starring Jenifer Lewis and Tim Curry besides a crackerjack band of supporting actors and more stars than there are in the heavens, can rightfully take its place among the greatest. If the hallmark of this film had to be boiled down to one word, that word would be “commitment.”
Lewis gorgeously embodies the role of Jackie Washington, a former child star of Motown turned boozy footballer’s wife turned blaxploitation film star turned infommercial plugger, now attempting a comeback concert. Tim Curry pitches in with an equally marvelous portrayal as documentarian Edwart Whatsett St. John, who is filming the events leading up to the show (to oft-hilarious result). As if none of this was enough, supporting performances are provided by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg as Jackie’s bitter sister Ethyl, Tom Arnold as her now-incarcerated manager, David Hyde Pierce as deaf rehearsal pianist Perry, Julie Hagerty as talk show hostess Pammy Dunbar, Loretta Devine as Jackie’s childhood friend Snooky, Kathy Najimy as a stalker, Donna Pescow as Jackie’s biggest fan, and the late lamented Isabel Sanford in her final (and wholeheartedly uproarious) screen appearance as Mrs. Krumes. Then there are the celebrity cameos by such personalities as Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Dolly Parton, Diahann Carroll, Bruce Vilanch, Kamryn Manheim, Kathy Griffin, Rosie O’Donnell, Don Cornelius, Charles Barkley, Chris Rock and Culture Clash besides myriad others. Townsend clearly pulled out all the stops in the making of this hysterical flick.
The script is an entertainment maven’s dream come true; the mere fact that Jackie is unaware that Shirley Bassey isn’t dead makes for a truly hootable moment. And Lewis couldn’t play the realization more brilliantly. In point of fact, she and Curry are a match made in heaven while bantering back and forth. Another classic snippet of dialogue comes when Jackie asks Edward, who truly has no idea who she is or why he’s been assigned to document her life, “They played my records in England, didn’t they?” and he replies, “Well, yes! But I never heard them.”
Adding to all of the mirth is a truly human backstory. Jackie’s daughters, Shaniqua and Antandra (played by Tangie Ambrose and T.V. Blake respectively) each have their own shares of angst and anguish where their mother is concerned and for completely different reasons. It is to the credit of both young actresses that they hold their own so beautifully against Lewis, who has never been a slouch at acting anyone right off a screen.
Is Jackie’s Back! for everybody? Certainly not. But those who thoroughly enjoy the “mockumentary” genre will love it as well as devout fans of satire. As such, this humble writer couldn’t recommend it more highly as a DVD purchase.