It may not be much of a secret that Michael Jackson acted inappropriately with a number of young boys, but there’s no way to prepare yourself for the sickening forensic details presented in Dan Reed’s four-hour exposé. It’s one thing to be vaguely aware of the various allegations that were made against the King of Pop; the asterisks that will always be next to the late mega-star’s name. It’s quite another to hear the horrifyingly lucid testimony that stretches across the entire duration of “Leaving Neverland,” as two of Jackson’s most repeat victims bravely lay bare how a universal icon seduced them away from their realities, splintered their families beyond all recognition, and leveraged their love for him into a disturbing litany of sexual acts.
The eloquent and straightforward “Leaving Neverland” was made for no other reason than to give shape to a nebulous cloud of rumors, many of which were floated in public before they were silenced behind settlements, and none of which a jury was able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. In the wake of Reed’s film and the shattering interview footage that it exists to share with us, there’s no longer a reasonable doubt. There’s no longer any doubt at all. Not only do the documentary’s two main subjects perfectly corroborate their separate accounts in all of the most tragic of ways, but they do so with a degree of vulnerability that denies any room for skepticism.
(Warning: the rest of this review contains extremely graphic details about child sexual abuse.)
The same is true of their respective family members, who share a profound guilt for how they enabled this abuse, and a bone-deep rage at the man who perpetrated it. A man who some of them once loved — a man who some of them still do. Steel yourself for specifics, as dancing around them would defeat the purpose of this documentary: Jackson was a man who convinced their most innocent relatives to bend over and spread their butt cheeks while he masturbated to the sight; who forced them to suck on his nipples while he serviced himself; who installed an elaborate system of alarm bells at the Neverland Ranch so that he would hear if anyone was going to walk in on an eight-year-old boy with the pop star’s penis inside his mouth. Penetration was a more complicated process, but one that got increasingly possible as the boys grew older. There was even a mock wedding ceremony at one point; the kid involved still can’t bear to look at the ring. The mothers chaperoned many of these vile trysts, oblivious to (or in denial about) what Jackson was doing to their sons behind closed doors. A teenage sibling even defended the pop star in court. She didn’t know any better, but will still regret that decision until the day she dies.
Wade Robson met the King of Pop after he won a Michael Jackson dance contest at the Target store near the working-class Brisbane home where he was raised. The year was 1987; Robson was five. First prize at the contest was a chance to meet his idol backstage after his next concert, but Jackson was so enamored by the adorable little fan that he invited Robson to perform onstage (Reed has vivid home video footage to back this up, as he does with virtually everything discussed in this film aside from the sex crimes). And so began a long and sordid friendship that eventually grew so intense that Robson, his mother, and his older sister all moved to Los Angeles so that Michael could see Wade whenever he wanted. The audio recordings of their phone calls together — and the photos of the copious letters and faxes that Jackson would send — are every bit as unsettling as you might imagine.
Jimmy Safechuck wasn’t much of a Jackson fan before the eight-year-old was hired to co-star in a 1987 Pepsi commercial. It wasn’t long before the world-famous celebrity was taking the kid on tour with him as a featured dancer; “Leaving Neverland” unexpectedly finds a sinister dimension behind Jackson’s famous dance moves, as he often used them as a way to justify spending so much time with small children (an excuse that was especially effective for Robson’s mom, who was eager to nurture her son’s natural talent). Jackson even liked to have sleepovers at Safechuck’s anonymous suburban house, during which he would explain to little Jimmy that he was lonely, and didn’t have any other friends.
Things get truly gruesome when Jackson moves into that sprawling estate, and the first part of Reed’s film grows so hard to stomach that it’s hard to imagine what the second might have in store. Mercifully, the latter part of “Leaving Neverland” is more concerned with the two trials that put Jackson’s behavior in the public sphere, and the psychic fallout that the Robson and Safechuck families are still fighting to survive. As Reed transitions into the last hours of this even-keeled takedown, the tidal wave of hours finally crests into a powerful emotional release. The last 30 minutes are the most harrowing of all, as they focus on how Wade and Jimmy revealed the truth to their families — to their parents, siblings, and wives — and the effect that had on everyone in their lives. It’s devastating to watch, as a Russian novel’s worth of guilt and resentment are cleanly traced back to Jackson’s influence.
In hindsight, or from any other kind of remove, all of this was obviously insane. But each of these boys felt like the luckiest kid in the world. Jimmy’s mom — so moved by Jackson’s childlike energy and supposed innocence — started to think of him as a son. Jimmy met a plethora of celebrities at Jackson’s side, and if people like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery didn’t think any of this was weird, what did his mom really have to worry about? Who doesn’t want to believe in fairy tales? What was the Neverland Ranch if not a place where fantasies were protected from the forces of reality? There’s a reason why this film’s Sundance premiere was attended by a (small) band of protestors, and why so many people across the world refused to let the rumors interfere with their love for Jackson. It’s not easy to reconcile a living god with the foibles of a troubled human being; at a certain point, the two almost become mutually exclusive. And it only gets harder when that iconic figure played such a foundational role in so many of our lives, because severing a major connection to the past can feel as scary and irrational as climbing out on a tree branch and sawing it off behind you.
So far as the collective unconscious is concerned, it can be hard to assess the virtue of a man who was loved by billions and loathed by a certain few, but “Leaving Neverland” could be enough to balance the scales. On the surface, the film seems to have nothing more on its mind than setting the record straight. It skews closer to the archival than the artistic, and Reed — whose previous films all share a journalistic bent — doesn’t pretend that he’s making anything more than a well-crafted delivery mechanism for a deluge of awful facts. This is pretty dry stuff, despite its deep library of audiovisual evidence, and it could probably be an hour shorter if Reed cut back on all those enervating drone shots of the Los Angeles landscape (this is what happens when you’ve got four hours of HBO primetime to fill).
And yet, the film is ultimately able to transcend its basic functionality. Not because of how well it conveys these particular accounts, but rather because of how comprehensively it corroborates so many others like them. The denial, the shame, the way that young minds are able to rationalize even the most insidious trauma until it explodes like a time bomb when they’re adults (as Jennifer Fox so indelibly conveyed in “The Tale”); these are the very same forces that allow powerful abusers to undermine the accusations against them, and frighten their victims into silence. These are also the very same forces that unify survivors, and thread their stories into a single tapestry that makes all of them easier to understand and believe. “Leaving Neverland” is hardly great cinema, but it’s a crucial document for a culture that still can’t see itself clearly in Michael Jackson’s shadow.
You’ll never listen to Michael Jackson the same way again. In fact, you may never listen to Michael Jackson again at all.
HBO will air “Leaving Neverland” as a two-night television event this spring.