Film | Leaving Neverland — reckoning with the man in the mirror
Jimmy Safechuck and Wade Robson’s stories are eerily alike, each detailing childhood experiences of grooming and molestation that follow a similar pattern. Starting in 1987, both boys crossed paths with global superstar Michael Jackson. Safechuck, then aged nine, soon started touring with Jackson, travelling with his family but — by June 1988 — receiving parental permission to share a bed with the singer, eventually being coaxed into performing various sex acts. The following year, Wade, now aged seven, is left alone at Jackson’s Neverland ranch while his parents visit the Grand Canyon, and the cycle of abuse begins again. Both accounts are refuted by the Jackson estate, having come to light after his death.
There are a number of shocking developments in Leaving Neverland, director Dan Reed’s forensic account of the alledged child abuse of two boys at the hands of Michael Jackson, from the incidents themselves to the circumstances that facilitated them, but arguably the most harrowing aspect of the documentary is its straight delivery and unwavering focus. This is no meandering, multi-season, melodramatic Netflix production, designed to keep its audience gripped on every detail, but a traditional and intransigent character study too interested in the pursuit of its subjects’ truths to worry about theatre, twists or taste. Leaving Neverland is not to be binge-watched; it is to be born witness to.
Reed’s film, co-produced by HBO and Channel 4, and presented in the UK as two two-hour episodes, is as difficult to watch as any documentary in recent memory. Comprising interviews with Safechuck, Robson and their respective families, often overcutting archive footage of their heavily documented encounters with Michael Jackson, a combination of home movies and promotional materials, the film is able to evidence scenarios and behaviours that would otherwise have been difficult to believe. Before the alledged abuse, Jackson sent film crews to Safechuck’s childhood bedroom, to ‘interview’ him after he appeared alongside Jackson in a Pepsi commercial. It’s creepy and conceited enough, at least until another mock interview, recorded aboard Jackson’s private plane and this time face-to-face, makes his infatuation even clearer — to present day Safechuck’s obvious discomfort.
Had Leaving Neverland limited itself to Safechuck and Robson’s isolated stories it would still have been a powerful and damning piece of film. What really sets it apart, however, is the involvement of their respective families — and specifically the testimonies of their traumatised mothers. While much of the film concerns the past, prior to Jackson’s death in 2005, Jackson has continued to haunt the Safechucks and Robsons to the present day. The latter have perhaps born the brunt, with Wade’s unwitting mother having relocated half of her family to Los Angeles to be closer to Jackson, an episode that ended in her estranged husband’s suicide, and persuaded her son to defend Jackson in court against another count of abuse — a perjury that discredited another accuser, weighed heavily on Wade’s conscience and brought his integrity into question. She now lives in quasi-exile, while both she and her son must live with their part in keeping a suspected sex offender out of prison and free to prey on others. Nobody has come out of the ordeal unscathed — even if each family did benefit from Jackson’s fame and fortune at the time.
It’s for this reason more than any other that Leaving Neverland is so convincing in its parallel accounts. Sensitive rather than sensational, it’s far more interested in its subjects than in the celebrity who is alleged to have abused them. These people are obviously damaged — their hands shake, their voices tremble and their eyes search for understanding — and whatever you might think of Michael Jackson or his legacy it’s their stories that matter most. Jackson is dead, after all — and his intentions or excuses died with him. The ghost itself is irrelevant; what really counts to all involved is the success of the exorcism.