REVIEW: Leaving Neverland (2019 – Documentary)

Release Poster – HBO

The following is a review of Leaving Neverland — Directed by Dan Reed.

The saying goes that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. When it comes to the case of Michael Jackson and everything surrounding him there’s been more smoke than you can safely breathe in. Indeed, Leaving Neverland-director Dan Reed and his film’s subjects would allege that Michael Jackson has been blowing smoke most of his adult life about what exactly goes on inside Jackson’s bedroom or his Neverland-ranch.

Reed’s two-part documentary is structured around Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s accounts of what happened between them and Michael Jackson when they were between the approximate ages of 7 and 14. Both Robson and Safechuck allege that they were sexually abused and molested by the late pop singer who was often called the ‘King of Pop’ and said to be a ‘child at heart.’

Leaving Neverland is a deliberately one-sided documentary that in no way, shape, or form seems to have sought out voices who dispute Robson and Safechuck’s allegations. There is no interview with people like Macaulay Culkin, who, as I understand it, still, to this day, insists nothing ever happened, or the Jackson family. The only defense of Michael Jackson present in the documentary comes in the form of archival footage of Jackson or his lawyers, and, of course, the documentary also presents YouTube videos of upset fans spewing hate at Safechuck and Robson. A one-sided talking head documentary with an overabundance of pointless drone shots, Leaving Neverland is not what I would call a particularly great piece of work. With that having been said, Reed’s film indeed is terrifying, nauseating, and, to a certain extent, fairly convincing.

You’ll be devastated and overwhelmed time and time again especially in the first part of the documentary. The first part of the documentary is what its critics would call Safechuck and Robson’s ‘take-down’ of Michael Jackson, wherein they give detailed descriptions of their time with him, whereas the second part of the documentary focuses on how Jackson allegedly ruined Safechuck and Robson’s lives as well as how the allegations affected their families and future relationships.

In spite of harsh criticism and outrage from the Jackson family and die-hard fans, Leaving Neverland was released all over the world and championed by HBO. Robson and Safechuck, who, as the documentary does mention, both said that Jackson did nothing inappropriate to them time and time again, here lay out detailed descriptions of what they allege Michael Jackson did to them. Their descriptions, whether true or false, are undeniably disgusting, nauseating, and upsetting. Leaving Neverland’s descriptions are unforgettable and those who are faint of heart should not seek out this documentary.

Allow me, for a moment, to change my focus. This, a documentary take-down of a beloved artist like no other, is a film that is going to push a lot of fans to their breaking points, even if they choose not to believe Robson and Safechuck’s personal truths. So, as someone who, for a very long time, would call myself a fan of Michael Jackson, I feel the need to talk about my own perspective.

I think it’s really tough with someone like Michael Jackson. This is an individual whose story is, in itself, complicated, and he is remembered differently by different generations. Some remember him as the child prodigy with the voice of an angel. Some remember him as the star — the King of Pop. While others remember him as the man who was involved in controversy after controversy.

A part of coming to terms with his legacy going forward is backtracking. Retracing one’s steps. Looking at your own fandom, looking at your own position. When I was a kid, I had a Bad-poster on my wall (at least that’s how I remember it, though my parents believe it was a framed LP record). I begged my mom to keep her Jackson records and CDs in my room. I tried to dance like him. I tried to dress like him. I remember vividly wearing a shimmering white glove, dancing to Thriller, Bad, and whatnot.

I loved his music then and I still do, even if I’m not sure I’ll be able to listen to it again the same way. I remember watching his memorial service on television and crying with my mother and sister. We all loved him. He was the King of Pop, and he was the greatest there ever was, at least for a major chunk of my life.

Just the other day, I spoke to a friend of mine about how Jackson had cast a spell on many people and children around the world and that, if indeed he did what Leaving Neverland alleges he did, even I could’ve been a victim had I been in a different place in my childhood. It’s weird, but, more than anything it’s disturbing. It’s disturbing to think like that. It hurts to think like that. I was a fan. Past-tense. I love his music. Present-tense.

Can you separate the art from the artist? I tend to believe it is possible, but this documentary certainly tests your limits. No matter what you choose to believe — and, frankly, I’m still struggling with this — you cannot deny that Robson and Safechuck’s accounts are incredibly detailed and seem somewhat credible, even though their past comments and actions are cause for suspicion. If what happened to them happened, then they deserve a moment to tell their truth. This isn’t about you or me, it’s about them, their parents, and celebrity culture.

Still, though, this is not a documentary that I would say has strong journalistic credibility. Leaving Neverland is blatantly one-sided and disinterested in counterarguments. Furthermore, I do not think the second part of the documentary, which revolves around Safechuck and Robson’s lives as adults, investigates its own subjects thoroughly enough. In a way, it absolutely is a compelling and arresting documentary, but the documentary is needlessly oversized and unbalanced. The documentary’s one-sided scope is inexplicable when you consider the film’s excessive runtime.

It may be the final nail in the coffin that forces you to rethink your stance on the Michael Jackson allegations — after all, it’s impossible to ignore this much smoke — but it isn’t a particularly great documentary. Though I’m sure Dan Reed was more interested in letting Robson and Safechuck tell their truth than making a perfect piece of journalism, and, frankly, who can blame him?

6.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

Note: This is a review of the shortened 180-minute long version of the documentary that was shown on the Danish television channel, DR (Danmarks Radio).

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