Rating: 1.5 out of 5
Michael Jackson is one of the most imitated and beloved icons of the past fifty years, his death was a media circus anchored by the controversies that had followed him throughout his life and new ones spawned in the wake of his passing, now in 2019 we have Leaving Neverland. This four-hour two-part documentary concerns itself with the testimony of James Safechuck and Wade Robinson, two grown men who detail accounts of sexual abuse from childhood at the hands of Michael Jackson. This is a disassembly of the magic and facade of Michael Jackson and the film does this with a particular ruthlessness, not because it feels angry or enraged about the horrendous manipulation faced by these two men in their youth, but rather it has the same conviction as a TMZ hit piece, it wants blood and ratings. The endings to both halves do much to remedy this problem as the filmmaker Dan Reed manages to appear to care for James and Wade’s stories being heard, which leaves episode one and two on a solid note, but the rest of the movie he seems far more interested in Jackson. This is a sloppy, affecting, sensationalistic mess of a film.
The most powerful moments in this film are the talking head interviews with James, Wade and their respective families. Some of the scariest moments are watching their parents try to explain and justify how they could allow their children to engage in such blatantly inappropriate behavior with an adult, and just as a theme emerges about the perversion of celebrity and status, Reed quickly diverts his attention to Jackson. In this way it feels more like a Youtube video or an early morning NBC special than a movie (down to the cheesy over-saturated drone shots), only concerned with the information not with the subjects or the people at play. Dan Reed really wanted to take Jackson down, and with good reason, Michael is a monster, but in the process the only thing he sabotages is his film. He had the opportunity to make something not only revealing but insightful. Instead he settled for a glorified episode of Dateline.
It’s not all bad, perhaps I’m being harsh, but the filmmaking really left me cold. It’s clinical and mechanic, this is a tough, powerful, essential story but the filmmakers never seem to recognize that urgency. The reason this story needed to be told is for James and Wade, victims who never got the chance to speak their truth and all the other young boys silenced by payoffs or intimidation, by Michael Jackson and other men of power from Hollywood to the Vatican. There is a grotesque feeling watching Dan Reed consistently steal this film from the men it should be centered on, he becomes a complete failure as an auteur, he was only concerned with the endgame, not the journey, he just wanted to see the Jackson legacy boil and pop under the heat. This film however should not have been a public execution rather a space for healing and growth for James, Wade and perhaps even their families, who perpetrated and benefited from Jackson’s abuse.
With all that said, this is one of the best films about abuse I have seen, which is more a testament to how few films of quality actually exist about the subject rather than the merits of Leaving Neverland as a piece of art. The stories told by James and Wade are heart wrenching, and for any skeptics out there who “don’t believe them” I implore you to do some of your own research. If the closet within a closet with triple locks and a keypad on it, specifically made as a room where Michael could abuse young children sounds a bit far fetched for you, just go watch Matt Lauer tour Neverland Ranch after Jackson’s death for the Today Show. He arrives at the closet saying “you want to see something really amazing, really special?” before entering the password to open the door. Knowing what we know about both Michael and Matt, and what happened in that room, this scene takes on a haunting resonance, but for reasons, be it not owning the rights or access to that footage, or perhaps lack of interest, this damning and striking footage is never showed. Reed is almost afraid to point the finger at the audience, it would be much harder to reckon with our own culture of complicity that fostered and praised an evil man hiding behind his talent than simply saying Jackson is bad, that’s a really easy film to make but evidently not a very good one as Leaving Neverland displays.
This film should’ve been about ignorance, complacency, idolization and adoration of celebrity, wealth, power, most importantly it should have been about James and Wade. Even their parents can’t not mention Michael without a hint of admiration and fond recollection, like the years their children suffered and were irreparably damaged were the best years of their lives, they too are more interested in discussing the King of Pop. The films sentiment does not present itself as a platform for survivors but a smear piece for Jackson, and he should be smeared. I dare you to listen to “Smooth Criminal” or “Bad” after watching Leaving Neverland. Reed’s execution and methods are frankly exploitative, this story is played for entertainment, he invites us to pity these men, when we should be sympathizing, talking, healing with them. He chooses pathos over catharsis. One cannot help but question his motivations in this ordeal, this felt more like a great elevator pitch than a subject he really felt like excavating. Perhaps this is the reason no one was granted justice during Jackson’s lifetime, our manner of addressing, dealing and resolving these issues is immature, insensitive and somehow refuses to acknowledge the victims completely. What’s our excuse now that he’s dead?