Leaving Neverland: Review


The #MeToo movement’s long overdue instigation of holding many show-business figures accountable for their sexual misconduct has resulted in the re-evaluation of the reputations, legacies and moral compasses of a number of hugely powerful men.

Yet none of them hit the stratospheric levels of fame and idolisation reached by deceased pop icon Michael Jackson

Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland, a two-part documentary with a 4 hour version airing in the US and a 3 hour cut shown in the UK, is a devastating and unflinching film exposing the compelling testimonies of James Safechuck and Wade Robson, both of whom allege that Jackson sexually abused them during their childhood.

With clarity an obvious priority, the documentary is laid out chronologically and the testimonies of the now adult Safechuck and Robson provide a rigid axis from which the film never strays. Robson, born in Australia, was just 5 years old when he won a dance competition and meeting the idolised Jackson was the prize. Safechuck, on the other hand, met the pop-star when they did a Pepsi commercial together. The men’s subsequent allegations of the predatory and calculated ways in which Jackson took advantage of them and then facilitated not only years of such abuse are hauntingly graphic and detailed. The purpose for such a painstaking process is made clear – to address the rumours once and for all.

Although Reed opts to keep James and Wade apart, their words corroborate devastatingly

A common question often raised during the recent spate of true-crime documentaries is also prominent in Leaving Neverland:

How culpable are the parents?

When considering such an uncomfortable thought, particularly given the prominence of James and Wade’s parents in the film, it is easy to judge. Yet Reed’s film succeeds in conveying the complexity of Jackson’s tentacled grip on the families, with close relationships to each and every member to the point where James’ mother, Stephanie, even says that she considered Jackson one of her own children. The spellbinding power of the world’s biggest pop-star with his riches and opulent Neverland Ranch was not just effective on young boys. Much of the second part of the documentary deals with the lasting trauma felt by the families and the punishing guilt carried by mothers Stephanie and Joy is heartbreaking.

However, Reed refuses to orientate the film on the icon, providing an unwavering focus on the testimonies. This is not a film primarily about Michael Jackson, but rather a platform for men to emerge from the shadow of a man they once viewed as a god. Pictures of Jackson are almost exclusively of him with the children, his significance reduced and bound to the statements of James and Wade. As a result, the lengthy running time may deter some viewers, which would be a shame given how essential the film feels. The straightforward style and structure may also mean it is far from a hugely creative piece of filmmaking.

However, any sensationalism would feel misjudged and inappropriate

Allegations of child sex abuse were made against Jackson in 1993, but the shattering statements of these alleged victims will surely carry resonance and weight for years to come. Although many may claim that Michael Jackson is simply too big a superstar to seemingly erase or ignore, many diehard fans have dismissed Leaving Neverland as a ploy for the Safechucks and Robsons to earn money. Completely divorcing their words from his music seems impossible and, frankly, irresponsible. As is unfortunately the case with so many cases of sexual abuse, it is the word of one person against that of another, yet this excruciating documentary is a vital platform for those who claim to have been abused by Jackson, which they say was later repressed by the crushing weight of his status as the King of Pop. While that nickname may endure, Leaving Neverland shall leave a lasting mark on his legacy.

Despite this, Reed’s documentary also highlights how unfortunately, this does not mean justice has been served

Photograph: Alan Light via Flickr Creative Commons

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