Review: LEAVING NEVERLAND, Parts 1 and 2 on HBO

By Josh Muchly

Disclaimer: The following is not a defense of any individual who grooms, abuses or silences children.

Upshot: Dan Reed’s two-part, four-hour documentary LEAVING NEVERLAND explores the claims of abuse against Michael Jackson by Wade Robson and James Safechuck.

Highpoint: the story surrounding the accusations.  It is utterly fascinating getting to know Wade and James as youngsters and understanding how they found themselves in Michael Jackson’s orbit. Not only that, but to witness the impact Michael made on their parents, siblings, and, now, their wives and children are quite interesting: divorce, depression, death; the power of Jackson’s celebrity defied social boundaries, norms, and ethics. This, it is claimed, was part of how Jackson was able to groom unsuspecting children: he had already “groomed the world.”

Lowpoint: there’s no smoking gun. I certainly don’t recall any proof of sexual abuse: no DNA or photographic evidence of any kind. I only recall proof that Wade and James knew Michael Jackson and spent time with him: recorded phone calls and messages; faxes; letters; gifts. There is no doubt that Michael Jackson took special interest in these two men while they were young boys; as creepy as that might be, doubt remains that Jackson sexually abused them.

Rundown: Are Mr. Robson and Mr. Safechuck believable? Absolutely. Should we take their claims seriously? Of course. But is the documentary entirely persuasive? No.

The documentary assumes the truth of these men’s claims and is curated accordingly; so be it. These men should be heard. And yet, something feels unnecessarily manipulative about it, as if their testimony isn’t convincing enough on its own.  For example, while they’re describing the (alleged) inappropriate contact with Mr. Jackson, we are often shown a picture of them as prepubescent boys with the celebrity;  it’s as if we’re being told, “See? What there is obviously true because we have proof Michael Jackson knew these boys.” But why the need to edit? Why cut away from the interview?

At an NAACP ceremony, Michael Jackson was filmed on stage promulgating that he hasn’t been “proven guilty;” when his comment is met with thunderous applause, we’re meant to despise the presumption of innocence. On one hand, it is chilling to see:  it shows many people weren’t taking the abuse claims against the celebrity seriously; it’s possible they were cheering on a rapist and predator. On the other hand, the frustrating reality is that, technically, what Mr. Jackson said was true. And it remains true; unless something changes he will always be “innocent” under the law because he was found innocent in a court of law.

The proof is not necessarily required in a documentary, however. What’s required is a story. And, damn, does LEAVING NEVERLAND have a story! The effect Michael Jackson had on his admirers could be an on-going documentary series in and of itself.

Ultimately, I suspect the audience can (or will) move on from this documentary thinking whatever they want. It is not powerful enough to convince you of something you wish to remain unconvinced of, but it may be powerful enough to make you second-guess your loyalty to Michael.

Rating: 5/7

Postscript: I’ve never been a big fan of Michael Jackson. I recognize his talent, of course; his genius, even. However, his stardom escaped me. I was not allowed to listen to his music when I was young; my father, under the influence of the very news footage we see in LEAVING NEVERLAND, forbids it. Given that a recurring theme in the documentary was the failure of parental figures to protect their children, I suddenly have much more respect for my dad’s protection — even if he was overly protective.

I’m in the same age group as Wade Robson and James Safechuck. While they were being (allegedly) groomed by Michael Jackson, I was safe and sound, playing with Happy Meal toys, mostly unaware of the pop icon’s existence.

Would I be surprised if the allegations against Mr. Jackson are true? Not at all. Am I 100 percent certain they’re true? No. For my part, I won’t “cancel” Michael Jackson. I may listen to his music less often, but I won’t ban it from my life. In fact, I may go see “Michael Jackson One” by Cirque du Soleil before its gone.

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