It is the mark of an impressive documentary when it does not merely reveal new information about a subject, but makes us question all the information we have previously received on the matter. When the subject of the documentary is one of the most relentlessly discussed men to have ever lived, the achievement is only greater.
Leaving Neverland tells the story of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who both claim to have been sexually abused by Michael Jackson as young boys. Even though accusations and rumours of abuse enveloped the last two decades of Jackson’s life, the revelations contained within Dan Reed’s film are shocking, its minimalistic approach only rendering Robson and Safechuck’s stories more harrowing.
Such is the fervour of Jackson’s tunnel-visioned fanbase, this documentary was always going to be controversial, and the main criticism raised so far is that Leaving Neverland is overwhelmingly one-sided. The film certainly has an agenda, and there is a conspicuous lack of voices taking Jackson’s side, likely down to their refusal to participate in the project.
However, it is not intended as the final word on Jackson’s life, or on his alleged crimes. Rather, it is a means of telling the stories of Robson and Safechuck, who until recently had denied any misconduct on the part of the late entertainer.
The focus is on the two men and their families, all of whom introduce themselves to the viewer verbally, rather than through subtitles, which produces a disconcertingly intimate effect. Jackson, who died a decade ago, is a spectral presence, seen sparingly in rare archive footage, and it is a real strength of Leaving Neverland that it is never overwhelmed by a figure who several of its participants refer to as ‘larger than life.’
The two men’s stories are certainly convincing, and align in revealing Jackson’s chilling sexual routine, methods by which he allegedly seduced many more underage boys. This seduction took place on several levels, not just directed towards children but also in gaining the trust of their families.
Our viewing instinct is to condemn Robson and Safechuck’s parents for letting their sons sleep in the same bed as an adult stranger, but, as the film progresses over its three hour runtime, we are exposed to the singer’s disarmingly infantile charm, an apparent mask for his predatory tendencies.
The two men claim that Jackson’s emotional manipulation prevented them from going public with their stories sooner, and some of the language they use to describe his grooming of them, with seemingly perverse references to ‘making love’, is consistent with the long-term Stockholm syndrome suffered by victims of abuse. The film’s linear structure covers not just the initial allegations of sexual abuse levelled at Jackson in 1993 and his trial following fresh accusations twelve years later, but also the way in which Robson and Safechuck’s lives developed after Jackson discarded them for new, younger boys. Robson’s family was particularly affected by the singer’s involvement in their lives, with his parents divorcing and his father later dying by suicide. In a painful moment, Wade’s mother says that she can forgive Jackson’s ‘sickness’ before she forgives her own neglect. It is unclear now whether this film will irrevocably change our perception of Jackson, but, as a viewing experience, it feels like the puncturing of a honeyed reverie.
Image: John Wiley via Wikimedia