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“Leaving Neverland” Feels More Like an Opportunistic Hit-Piece Rather Than a Documentary [Review]

I can “review” HBO’s upcoming “Leaving Neverland” or just give an opinionated schema of Michael Jackson and his history of sexual abuse allegations towards underaged teenage boys. I’ll try to do both.

Leaving Neverland” comes to us in rather problematic and outlandish circumstances. The fact that Michael Jackson, the antagonist of this documentary, has been dead for the better part of 10 years can seem unfair in that he has no way to defend himself. Secondly, and maybe less covered by the media, is the fact that one of the two accusers in the documentary, Wade Robson, a former choreographer whose allegations of abuse are at the center of this controversial new doc, has a shady past. Now, this shouldn’t be of any concern, especially with his alleging that he was sexually abused by Jackson, but Robson has a history of, err, shall we say, a desperate past. We’ll get back to that later.

For the better part of two decades I have intensely folllowed the Michael Jackson saga. My mind has changed a few times, from he’s innocent to he’s guilty to I just don’t know anymore, but it’s rather hard for me to take director Dan Reed’s “Leaving Neverland” at face value, let alone review it, because the two victims being interviewed here, Robson and James Safechuck, have had so many revised accounts of what happened; lies have been uttered by them, maybe purposely or maybe accidentally. Despite all that, memory is a funny thing, where even the most hardened of experiences can have crucial details feeling rather hazy decades later, let alone if you were a child when it happened.

Leaving Neverland is a talking-heads movie—there is no narration from Reed. It’s all about the sexually explicit story recounted by these two boys, Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, who became friends with Jackson, a friendship which they claim eventually went beyond that, as lovers, masturbation buddies, fellators.

The film had its premiere at Sundance last month, where it screened to shocked reactions. And yet, despite its 240 minute running time, you do feel as if Reed is force-feeding us something he quickly assembled together in the editing room just for the sake of making the cut for the festival, where the film, unsurprisingly, created the kind of buzz that makes its March 3rd premiere on HBO now a must-see event.

The details in this film are gruesome and unabashedly raw.

Reed, with the assistance of Robson and Safechuck, paints Jackson as a serial predator. Robson says the pop star had a fetish for telling him to bend over and spread his butt cheeks while Jackson masturbated to the sight. There’s also Jackson’s insistence to have the boys suck and pull on his nipples while he offed himself. All this happening as Jackson created an elaborate system of “alarm bells” installed at the Neverland Ranch to alert him of any potential passer-byers that might walk in on him committing the sexual misdeeds.

The film is meant to shock. It has a no-holds barred account that will most likely have the most timid of minds running for the exits— no wonder paramedics were in attendance at the Sundance premiere in case what unfolded on the screen was too much to take. Yet nobody fainted, not even when when the topic of penetration with a 7-year-old boy came up in the film, a problem, which Robson claims, Jackson learned to live with until the boys grew older. Even more explicit is Robson recalling his first orgasm, when he was at such a young age that no ejaculation could occur.

What cannot be denied is that Robson had testified at Jackson’s 2005 trial (as an adult) that nothing sexual ever happened between them. Of course, victims of sexual abuse can deny it ever happening for fear of embarrassment or guilt, a common occurence when it comes to sexual abuse victimes, but Robson wasn’t forced to be a witness for the defense, he decided to do so on his own free will. He was cross-examined by sly legislators, and so, the fact that he now recants what he said in that public court back in 2005 could be deemed a potential case of perjury for lying under oath.

The problem with “Leaving Neverland” is, as mentioned, that two proven liars are the sources here, which makes the doc feel like a hit piece rather than any kind of artistic statement.

The allegations against Michael Jackson have already been scrutinized to no end. Remember the media frenzy that Martin Bashir’s 20/20 interview with a victim caused in the mid-’90s? It happened again the following decade, which resulted in Jackson’s home being raided by FBI officers, in two unannounced raids, but nothing incriminating being found. Jackson was acquitted of all charges in 2005 by a California jury. The FBI, likewise, “conducted a thorough investigation. Its 300-page file on the pop star, released under the Freedom of Information Act, found no evidence of wrongdoing.”

Michael Jackson was, and still is, a well-loved musician, who was also a terrible judge of character, and a naive fool. He spent the better part of his large extravagant life trusting some of the shadiest characters imaginable. He made extremely bad choices because he had lost touch with the way of life of the normal people and had no idea that his friendships with young people (by the way, it wasn’t only boys, there were lots of girls too, but none of their parents ever sued or blackmailed him) may be seen as sinister. I believe that he really didn’t get it.

It’s rather hard for me to sit here and type this considering my assumptions could very well turn out to be wrong, but in this case it’s not just the subjects who should be scrutinized, but the filmmaking itself, which is blandly told. I can count on more than two hands the amount of aerial shots Reed uses of Los Angeles, ditto the usage of archival material rather than the artistic, and the over-the-top 240 minute running time which could have easily been trimmed down to two hours.

Of note:

****Amidst the firestorm this doc is creating, the media refuses to acknowledge Robson and Safechuck’s shady background. After being denied a job by the Jackson estate to be head director of the singer’s Cirque du Soleil show, Robson apparently had a nervous breakdown, triggered, he once said, by an “obsessive quest for success.” His career, in his own words, began to “crumble.” In major debt he started shopping a book in 2013 that claimed he was sexually abused by Jackson, but no publisher picked it up. Safechuck entering this story only happened after Robson persuaded him to file a $1.5 billion dollar civil lawsuit/creditor’s claim, with Safechuck claiming he only realized he may have been abused when Robson filed his lawsuit. That lawsuit was dismissed by a probate court in 2017.

But, of course, none of that is in the movie. They aren’t even questioned about it.

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