After HBO’s Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance back in January (clocking in with a four-hour running time, it only screened once) there were a lot of reactions that basically fell somewhere in-between horrifying and a complete and utter damning of Michael Jackson’s legacy forever. To the point that the consensus of the people I talked to who watched Leaving Neverland went so far as to say that they’d never listen to Jackson’s music again.
Now, after watching this myself — at home, with a screener, where I could take breaks — at one point I hit a moment where I just couldn’t watch it anymore and took a 24-hour pause. All of these reactions are 100 percent accurate. This is a film that leaves no doubt as to what happened to these, at the time, children. But with its long running time, there’s something this film does that’s so important but that I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t expecting to come away from the film understanding how this could happen.
Right after watching Leaving Neverland I watched Netflix’s Abducted in Plain Sight, based on the recommendation of like 30 people and all of my Twitter feed. It has that, “wow, this is utterly crazy,” aspect to it that social media does seem to love. It’s a strange thing to watch both of these documentaries in one weekend. Abducted in Plain Sight is also the story of a pedophile, but, at 90 minutes, we pretty much just get the facts of the case, which does leave a viewer wondering, “How in the world could something like this happen?” It’s basically relying on shock value. On the flip side, Leaving Neverland painstakingly takes us through pretty much every detail of two separate cases involving Michael Jackson and, yes, it’s still shocking, but it also gives us insight into the mindset of the parents who, knowingly, allowed their young sons to sleep in the same bed as a grown man, and how the temptations of a man’s immense fame blinded all these people from what was obviously clear.
Since watching, I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael Jackson, and how so many people just ignore the accusations, trial, and obvious disturbing facts about his interaction with children. I think, with a famous figure like that who, at one time, was so beloved, it’s just easier for a lot of people to ignore all of this stuff – even though that’s so obviously wrong. With Jackson, there’s almost two different people we think about when we talk about him. There’s the larger-than-life superstar from the Thriller era moonwalking in front of the world. Then there’s the “Wacko Jacko” era. I suspect a lot of people unconsciously separate these two versions. And the fact that he’s been dead for 10 years makes all that easier. It’s easy to say, “Well, he got acquitted. And, besides, he’s not hurting anyone right now anyway.” What Leaving Neverland proves is Michael Jackson, ten years after his death, is still very much causing some people a lot of pain.
Dan Reed’s documentary focuses on two men, Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck. Their stories differ as far as how they first met Jackson (Robson, as a kid in Australia, won a dance contest; Safechuck was cast opposite Jackson in a Pepsi commercial) but once they start discussing the graphic and disturbing details, their stories become frighteningly similar. (One of the most horrifying aspects is learning what, specifically, Jackson, as they both separately put it, “liked.” And their descriptions are exactly the same.) But, as mentioned earlier, Leaving Neverland takes its time getting to that. The reason this documentary is so smart about what it’s doing is that, by the time we get to this unsettling part, we’re so enveloped in this story – and every Jackson advance on these kids seems so proportionally small, intricate, and meticulous – that by the time it gets to the true horrors, it almost feels too late for both of them. Jackson was a predator who knew what he was doing, and he did it masterfully. He knew how to use his fame to gain the trust of the kids, then the parents, and then manipulate a dividing wedge between the kids and their parents. It feels so cruel because these families never had a chance. Michael Jackson was basically a professional poker player sitting at a table with amateurs in Vegas for the weekend.
It’s easy to judge these parents. It’s easy to sit back and say, “I’d never let that happen to my kid.” It’s natural to think that way. But it’s easy to forget how big Jackson was in the mid-1980s. When you watch a show like Stranger Things, where those 80s’ childhood bedrooms are decorated with cool posters, like The Thing, this is revisionist history. Ten-year-old ’80s kids weren’t cool enough to have posters from John Carpenter movies in their bedrooms. They all had posters of Michael Jackson.
And I swear, if, as a kid, somehow I had the opportunity to stay over at Michael Jackson’s house – not knowing what we all know now – there’s no way I’d let my parents prevent that. Now, I’d like to think that they’d say, “No, this is not appropriate,” but when the most famous person on Earth is on a charm offensive – which includes private planes, traveling around the world, all expenses paid – it’s not difficult to envision a scenario how this all happens. At times, both Robson and Safechuck seem more angry at their respective mothers than even Jackson. And both mothers, who feature prominently in this film, for their part, both seem like human beings who still don’t quite understand how this all happened and probably will never fully forgive themselves. (Robson and his mother, as of the events in this film, would probably be classified as “estranged.”)
Interestingly, both Robson and Safechuck testified on Michael Jackson’s behalf in the case from the ‘90s that was eventually settled out of court. Both of them, still children, were coerced to testify. During a 2004 trail, Jackson asked Safechuck to testify again, but he refused. Robson eventually agreed. And it was Robson and Macaulay Culkin’s testimony that would wind up getting Jackson acquitted – something Robson clearly regrets today.
But when we get into the details of why they agreed to testify, it just adds another shocking layer to this whole story. Robson and Safechuck make it clear that, at the very least, that Michael Jackson still has a lot of meaning to both of them. Yes, they are both angry about what he did, but there’s also a fondness in their voices about certain aspects of Jackson. When both were “replaced” – Jackson had a tendency to find a new “favorite” once a child started getting older and taller – you can still hear the heartbreak in their voices. Watching, it’s hard to rationalize. It makes us, the viewer, angry. How could there be any fondness for this monster? But this isn’t our story. It’s not really even Michael Jackson’s story anymore. It’s Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck’s story. And after watching four hours of them telling their individual stories, the best we can do is just listen and understand.
The only thing we can do, really, is be done with Michael Jackson forever. I used to be able to justify listening to his music. Thriller is the defining album of my childhood and was my entryway into popular music. But Michael Jackson was a monster. And no matter how great a song like “Billie Jean” might be, it’s nearly impossible anymore to justify after watching this.
‘Leaving Neverland’ premieres on HBO on March 3rd. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.