Leaving Neverland

Leaving Neverland Review: Broken Idol

Leaving Neverland

Movie Rating:

3.5

Rumors and allegations about child molestation have tarnished the image of Michael Jackson for so long that the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland probably shouldn’t be shocking or even controversial at this point. That it’s being greeted that way actually serves the film’s underlying message about the power of the human capacity for denial.

Even a decade after his death, Michael Jackson is still so famous, so popular, and so beloved by millions (if not billions) of people across the world that the suggestion he could have been a monster seems almost inconceivable. Judging by the swift reaction against Leaving Neverland, many of the singer’s fans still adamantly refuse to believe the charges against him. According to the film, even his accusers felt such powerful love for the man that it took them decades to understand or accept that what he did to them constituted abuse.

The two-part, four-hour documentary focuses almost exclusively on two men, each now in their thirties. Both Wade Robson and James Safechuck entered Michael Jackson’s world at very young ages – Robson after winning a Michael Jackson dance contest and Safechuck as a child actor who starred with Jackson in a Pepsi commercial. Both tell chillingly similar stories about being swept into his entourage and his home, about Jackson ingratiating himself into their families, and about how he methodically seduced them into becoming his sexual partners, only to discard them later when the next pretty young thing came along to claim his attention.

As they both describe it, Jackson made the boys feel like his relationships with them were whirlwind romances. They felt a love for him even stronger than their love for their own families, and were too young to comprehend that the sexual acts he introduced them to were wrong. He treated them as confidantes and made them his accomplices. When the first public accusations of child molestation were brought against the singer, both Robson and Safechuck testified on his behalf, denying that he’d ever done anything inappropriate with them. Even into their adult years, neither one could admit to anyone what really happened.

Jackson’s defenders have called all of his accusers, including Safechuck and Robson, blackmailers trying to exploit a benevolent relationship for financial gain. Other than the men’s stories, Leaving Neverland presents no new evidence (physical or otherwise) to back up their claims. However, both come across as very credible victims. In many ways, the film is less investigative journalism than an outlet for two damaged men to work through their psychological traumas. Their accounts are detailed, graphic, sickening, and believable.

As a piece of filmmaking, the documentary is certainly compelling, but I do wish it had more to offer than just these interviews, some ambiguous home movie footage, and a lot of drone shots of the Neverland Ranch. In legal terms, it provides no proof of Jackson’s alleged actions. At four hours, it grows repetitive and makes its point early. There’s not much in the second half that couldn’t have been squeezed into the first two hours. The editing toward the end also gets kind of messy when Robson and Safechuck’s wives are interviewed, and the film leaves it very unclear whether either man is still married or not. Even a little bit of on-screen text might have helped smooth that over. Ultimately, however, issues like these are largely trivial.

Leaving Neverland is difficult viewing. Watching it could effectively destroy any lingering affection you may have for a legendary artist whose music and performances left a profound impact on popular culture that still resonates today. Michael Jackson’s songs still receive abundant radio airplay, and I’m left feeling greatly conflicted about whether it’s possible to divorce the art from its creator.

24 comments

  1. njscorpio

    I’ve been hearing about many radio stations no longer playing Michael Jackson after this aired. As you mentioned, there is no new evidence, so this reaction is more like “oh yeah, that was bad!” Of course, everyone is free to listen to, or not listen to, whatever they want, so I’m not critical of people deciding they no longer want to listen to Jackson. Still, these are the same accusations that existed at the time of his death, and his holographic tour, and his songs charting at #1 postmortem…it’s like, you all just loved him a few years ago, and nothing has changed but someone reminded you about these accusations. I feel like the reaction to MJ, both positive after his death, and negative now, is mostly a en-mass reaction, a social trend. “Everyone” was missing him when he died, now “nobody” wants to listen to him anymore.

  2. Csm101

    I always thought Michael Jackson had some kind of man child syndrome. I’m not excusing sexual abuse for this if he actually did it, but I feel like he thought he was one of them and probably needed psychological help. I’ll probably order HBO soon for True Detective and Game of Thrones, so I may have to check this out.

    • njscorpio

      The man child syndrome makes sense….a child star who never had a chance to actually be a child, or spend time with kids his own age…so when he is rich, he has the means to have the childhood he never had (heck, how many of us spend money we earn in our 30’s for stuff we wanted/had when we were 14?). That would explain the theme-park house, and surrounding himself with children. I imagine adults his age were either hanging around him looking for financial hand outs, or were more interested in adult activities like partying and drinking, going to age-appropriate places. A child is (probably) less likely to want to be around him for financial gain, and their friendship (I imagine) is more sincere than the adults.

      I don’t know which explanation makes more sense, is true, or is more bizarre.

      • Josh Zyber
        Author

        The Peter Pan “man child” thing is addressed in the movie, FYI. That was the excuse Michael himself and his family used for why he constantly surrounded himself with young children. It may even be true to an extent. Nevertheless, Robson and Safechuck claim that he twisted his relationships with them and other children into sexual abuse.

      • cardpetree

        No doubt in my mind that Jackson was a pedophile. The theme-park house was simply used as an excuse to get children to his house and seduce them. The whole man child thing was an act. All Jackson wanted to do was molest small children. He was a sick fuck.

  3. From the sounds of it, I get the feeling that this doc is very one-sided. Josh, what’s your take?

    I love a good doc that presents an unbiased story, presenting both sides of the argument, and allows the viewers to make up their own conclusions. Being that the accusers’ case was tossed out in the ’90s and there’s not a shred of new evidence, it doesn’t sound like this one presents any angle other their own.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      It is one-sided, yes. It’s Robson and Safechuck’s version of the story, with no counter-arguments from Jackson’s estate or fans.

      Honestly, I’m not sure that being “unbiased,” if there is such a thing, is actually important in a documentary. I mean, if you were watching a documentary about the Holocaust, would you insist that it provide the Nazi point of view just to make sure that everybody gets equal screen time? I’d guess not.

      Note that these are not the same accusers that Jackson went to trial for. At that time, both men denied the abuse and Robson testified on Jackson’s behalf in court. Those denials were a major factor in why Jackson was acquitted, because they provided reasonable doubt. The film explains why Safechuck and Robson changed their stories later, and their explanations seem credible.

      All that said, I do find it a failing that, other than interviewing these men and their families, the film doesn’t attempt to dig any deeper or uncover new evidence. At the very least, I might have liked some acknowledgment from the filmmakers about how difficult it is to know the real truth in cases like this.

      • Good point. Perhaps “unbiased” is the wrong term. I think “objective” is better – but, no matter what, the content will drive that.

        Of course, if I was watching a Holocaust documentary, I wouldn’t want one hateful Nazi propaganda film that tried to make me sympathize with the Nazis; however, considering how often people ask “how could someone do something like that?” any time they hear an awful news story, wouldn’t it be interesting for a Holocaust doc to at least dedicate a little time exploring where the different Nazi rationales and justifications came from? That’s what I mean by “objective.”

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think you’ll ever get that with something like this. Jackson is dead, and his family has a vested interest (both personally and financially) in perpetuating the image of Michael as a wholesome entertainer and innocent man-child.

  4. David Krauss

    Haven’t seen this yet, but I think I’m glad my wife and I saw the Michael Jackson Cirque de Soleil show in Las Vegas last month. It was great, but I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it or even gone at all after seeing this documentary.

  5. Shannon Nutt

    These men had their chance to “tell the truth” when they testified under oath. Michael had his day in court and was found innocent. Game over. If these guys REALLY wanted to be believed, take no money for this project and donate proceeds to some child abuse charity. Otherwise, go away.

    I’m a little worried about the influence documentaries are having on public perception. I mean, how many people out there think that Steven Avery is innocent (he’s as guilty as hell)? How many people think Adnan Syed is innocent? How many people think Lee Harvey Oswald is innocent? 🙂

      • Josh Zyber
        Author

        Although this documentary doesn’t necessarily deliver a smoking gun, a lot of the home movie footage of Jackson’s behavior around children, as well as the many letters and recorded messages he sent to the kids and to their parents, is all very damning. What cannot be denied is that he worked very actively to separate the children from their parents and to spend as much time alone with them in private as possible. At the very least, he was a massive creep.

        The film also makes it clear that the parents failed their children in allowing themselves to be wooed by Jackson’s celebrity and wealth. Safechuck’s mother in particular comes across very badly in this.

    • cardpetree

      Sometimes you just need to use some common sense. OJ and Jackson were able to hire very powerful attorneys. OJ clearly killed Nicole Simpson and Michael Jackson was clearly grooming, seducing, and sexually abusing young boys.

    • Timcharger

      Shannon, reading what you wrote, I was like, Avery who? A 2nd, Syed who’s that? Then a, okay Oswald, I know him. But then, am I supposed to know A and B, as much as I’ve heard of C? Perhaps, I’m just not as into the true crime genre as you are. Not commenting on guilt or innocence, but I don’t think there’s much of a public perception either way on what you cited. As least for 2 out of 3.

      • cardpetree

        Steven Avery is the main subject in an extremely popular Netflix show, Making a Murderer. Syed Adnan is the subject in the Serial Podcast, Season One. I highly recommend both. HBO is also releasing a show about Syed called The Case Against Adnad Syed. I will definitely be tuning in. Both stories are very interesting and immensely entertaining. If you like crime documentaries, The Jinx on HBO is also a must watch.

    • Timcharger

      “If these guys REALLY wanted to be believed, take no money for this project and donate proceeds to some child abuse charity. Otherwise, go away.”

      Is there really much money in making documentaries? And they weren’t the producers, so how much money can they make for this project? What if you found out they weren’t paid at all?

      And not to pick on you, Shannon, but this reverse-hypothetical claim is often made by so many. Will it really be true, that if you read that these 2 guys donated to child abuse charities, you would embrace their position? And then, what if the Jackson estate made a greater subsequent donation to child abuse charities. You would then buy back all the CDs you threw out? I seriously, am not picking on you; I struggle with how this news will affect my music collection.

      • Shannon Nutt

        Tim, I’m not even a Michael Jackson fan. My point is I believe in the rule of law. These guys either lied under oath or are lying now. Either way, they have zero credibility and we shouldn’t give them any. The director of the documentary refused to even talk to anyone who’s opinion didn’t fit his own. There was a police investigation. Jackson was found innocent. End of story. What I “think” or don’t “think” should be irrelevant.

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          Both men admit to lying under oath previously. They explain that they did that under intense pressure from Jackson, and because both were afraid to admit to their families and friends what had happened to them. It’s up to you to decide whether you believe them now, but it’s hard to make an informed decision if you dismiss them without even watching the film. Robson, who has a very successful career as a dance choreographer, really doesn’t seem to have anything to gain by lying now.

          The police investigation concluded that Jackson was a child molester, which is why he was arrested and sent to trial. He won in court primarily due to Robson’s testimony. Winning in court is not necessarily the same thing as being innocent. Again: O.J.

          • Is O.J. 100% definitely no-holds barred guilty? I didn’t follow the trial (I was 11 at the time), and I haven’t seen the series with Cuba Gooding Jr.? I seem to remember an acquittal across the board, from every jury member. But I could be mistaken – again, I was 11.

          • Pedram

            “The police investigation concluded that Jackson was a child molester, which is why he was arrested and sent to trial.”
            Sorry but that’s not how it works. The police investigation would have concluded that there is enough of a case against him (based on testimonies, evidence etc) to warrant a trial that had a potential of finding him guilty, but they couldn’t have come to that conclusion without a trial and hearing all the evidence weighed against each other.
            In either trial the evidence didn’t hold up and there was plenty to suggest that the allegations weren’t true. I looked into both cases and that was the conclusion I came to and so did plenty of others.

  6. Timcharger

    Look at today’s news. R Kelly’s 2 current live-in girlfriends defend him today. They are young adults now, and of course met R Kelly in their teens. It’s amazing to watch them defend R Kelly so ardently, while sitting next to each other. And while watching this news, I imagine there will be a future documentary of them recanting their stories. I hope that doesn’t take decades to occur.

  7. Timcharger

    Josh: “At four hours, it grows repetitive and makes its point early. There’s not much in the second half that couldn’t have been squeezed into the first two hours. The editing toward the end also gets kind of messy when Robson and Safechuck’s wives are interviewed, and the film leaves it very unclear whether either man is still married or not.”

    4 hours?! Damn, I want to watch Lawrence of Arabia instead of this. In this 140 character world, the filmmakers should know better. Especially since you said, there’s not much in the 2nd half.

    Not quite understanding your point, how does the men’s current marital status affect the story? I’m not disagreeing; I don’t know what you mean.

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