Letting go of Michael Jackson: "Leaving Neverland" wakes us from a false dream

The four-hour documentary may be the biggest test yet of our willingness to separate the art and the artist

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published March 3, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

Wade Robson, from left, director Dan Reed and James Safechuck pose for a portrait to promote the film "Leaving Neverland" at the Salesforce Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (AP/Taylor Jewell)
Wade Robson, from left, director Dan Reed and James Safechuck pose for a portrait to promote the film "Leaving Neverland" at the Salesforce Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (AP/Taylor Jewell)

There is before, and there is after. Abuse and assault survivors have been known to describe their identities that way, with the split between who they were and who they are enacted by some dread that rammed into their lives without warning, breaking what was from what is with the blunt cruelty of a maul.

Leaving Neverland,” airing Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO, should be that bludgeoning force for a number of people who see it. That’s should be — not will.

Given the insistent reluctance with which fans of lesser deities than Michael Jackson meet accusations of criminal behavior on the part of those stars, it is folly to think that Dan Reed’s four-hour documentary, presenting the stories of two men who allege Jackson sexually abused them for years, will change the minds of most of the late pop icon’s fans.

That describes millions of people around the world and, I daresay, much of America.

What can more accurately be said is that it deals a carefully measured, precise blow to any remaining qualifications harbored by those still reconciling themselves with the King of Pop's legacy. To sit with it is to welcome the end of any still-held illusions about the man, however gently.

Reed weaves Sunday’s opening two hours so as to evoke the sensation of a waking dream, with two families describing the magical way their paths crossed with Michael Jackson’s when he was the most famous star on Earth.

Together, subject and viewer leap into a fairy tale, a place where parents and children want for nothing. Wade Robson, a dance prodigy who won a local Michael Jackson dance contest in Australia at a tender age, became Jackson’s special friend. Jackson purchased a fax machine for Robson so they could exchange notes, and this fantasy friendship eventually inspired his mother Joy to move the family across the globe to Los Angeles, where Wade and his sister Chantal enjoyed sleepovers in Jackson’s bedroom at Neverland.

James Safechuck starred in a heartwarming 1980s Pepsi commercial with Jackson, which is how they first met. Again, the pair exchanged letters; soon after Jackson invited Safechuck and his family to have dinner with him at his first mansion, Hayvenhurst.  The star bestowed gifts on the boys and their parents; Safechuck, memorably, got to take home the famous “Thriller” jacket. Later Jackson would buy a house for his family, although they already resided in Los Angeles.

Throughout whirlwind tours where Robson and Safechuck were allowed to sleep in Jackson’s bedroom with the parents ensconced in room nearby (at first, that is), Reed methodically casts an emotionally-charged spell, aided by sweeping aerial views of cityscapes and Jackson's verdant estate held aloft on feathery, waltzing orchestral strains.

The cinematic style employed here coaxes the viewers into floating on clouds of misplaced security, as these families once did. You can get lost in these moments, as Safechuck’s mother Stephanie observes.

And in the midst of one of these visual flights gazing down over the Eiffel Tower at night, the rest of the city’s lights strewn like jewels at its feet — another slice of enchantment brought to them and us by Michael Jackson — Safechuck cracks that spell.  It was during a Paris trip, part of Jackson’s tour in support of “Bad,” that he says Jackson began a pattern of molestation that lasted for years.

Both men say Jackson forced each to engage in mutual masturbation and oral sex, framing them as acts of bonding and special expressions of love. When Safechuck became a teenager, he says Jackson would get him drunk and provide him with pornography before their encounters.

“Porn and candy. That’s what he had,” Safechuck says, alleging that their assignations became more “dirty sexual, rather than friends who were touching each other.”

“Leaving Neverland,” a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, stares unblinkingly at these nauseating details without retreating to the dazzle of Jackson’s stardom or the highlights of his biography. Save for a blip of a scene from “Thriller,” no official footage of music videos that might ignite a mote of nostalgia bedecks its architecture. Presumably the Jackson estate wouldn’t have shared them anyway.

What Reed utilizes instead — photos and archival video and audio clips from the Robson and Safechuck families themselves, some faded and shaky — has more resonance. Along with familiar clips from news footage, they shrink Jackson from an oversized icon to a small man, one who is alternately charming and sweetly manipulative, desperate and demented, who wielded a Pan-like innocence to coax his alleged victims and their families into allowing the otherwise unthinkable, like letting their young sons sleep with a grown man.

And the way Robson explains how this was possible speaks volumes about mass entertainment’s ability to dissolve all boundaries and make the incredible possible. “He had been in my living room every day, in my ears, via his music and his posters,” Robson explains. “I’d known him, I thought. And for some reason it didn’t feel strange to let me, a seven-year-old, and my sister, a 10-year-old, sleep in this man’s bedroom.”

This only sharpens the painful revelations in the second half of “Leaving Neverland,” which introduces both men’s wives and turns a sharper focus on Robson’s mother Joy and Stephanie Safechuck. And it’s strange to watch these women vacillate between glowing and crumbling at the memory of their time basking in the halo of Jackson’s presence, only to be shattered by their adult sons as each contends with the aftermath of what they say happened to them.

I’ve no doubt that lots of people will sit with Robson’s and Safechuck’s allegations, which include graphic descriptions of sexual abuse, long after the four hours of this documentary are spent and nevertheless excuse their way into separating the art from the artist. Heck, I've done it, making a point of differentiating between Jackson 5 and "Off the Wall" Michael Jackson and the rest of him, creating my personal before and choosing to turn my back on the after.

After witnessing these two men’s separate, eerily similar stories about Jackson’s method of grooming them and their families, is that still good enough? Lots of us will be asking that question, I'd wager. Robson says he was seven when the abuse began, when Jackson was in his 30s, and that it continued until he was 14. Safechuck alleges his sexual relationship with Jackson commenced when he was 10.

Safechuck even describes a mock wedding ceremony he and Jackson shared in secret, pulling the gold band ringed with diamonds out of a black box. He handles it with his fingertips, turns it over with consideration but little affection. As he shows it off along with other trinkets he says Jackson bought him as a reward for sexual favors, his hands subtly quiver.

Both Safechuck and Robson dispassionately recount instances of alleged molestation, with an evenness that makes their accounts grueling to absorb. Robson speaks haltingly about his memories of abuse, at times pausing to close his eyes as if processing anew what he’s just said or about to say.

June marks the 10-year anniversary of Jackson’s death, and yet Jackson's music has a constant presence in our lives, even if we don’t intend it to.

We participate in the celebration of Jackson’s music almost as a reflex, whether one remembers him as a beloved figure who sang songs about world peace and loving children (in a wholesome way), or as his tabloid persona “Wacko Jacko.” Jackson’s hits bring people to the dance floor at weddings, are frequent flyers on commercial radio playlists. “Thriller” is the song that launches a thousand flash mobs every Halloween.

And we do this in spite of at least partial awareness of the multiple allegations of child molestation Jackson sustained through the portion of his career that followed the worldwide explosions of “Thriller” and “Bad.” There was the Los Angeles Police Department’s 1993 investigation into claims that Jackson had molested 13-year-old Jordan Chandler, resulting in a civil suit brought by the child’s family. Jackson eventually settled the case out of course for $23 million.

There was British journalist Martin Bashir’s two-hour documentary “Living with Michael Jackson" in 2003, viewed by an estimated audience of 27 million, in which Jackson acknowledged he shared his bed with young boys, memorably claiming "I am Peter Pan."

There was the criminal investigation and 2005 trial that followed Bashir's doc, stemming from charges of child molestation and serving alcohol to a minor, Gavin Arvizo, as well as conspiracy and kidnapping. Jackson was acquitted, in part due to the testimony of a number of famous friends who insisted they were never abused, including Macaulay Culkin and, yes, Robson. Both he and Safechuck publicly insisted that Jackson had never molested them in 1993; Safechuck refused to testify in the 2005 trial, but Robson did.

In 2013, however, Robson sued Jackson’s estate. Safechuck filed a separate civil suit in 2014 stating the singer had abused him hundreds of times between 1988 to 1992. Both cases were dismissed.

Those bullet points are enough for Jackson’s devotees to dismiss “Leaving Neverland” as a fabrication by unreliable witnesses.

And I suppose that’s good news for the beneficiaries of Jackson’s estate, which is suing HBO for $100 million for airing “Leaving Neverland,” citing a non-disparagement clause in a contract the network signed in 1992 to air “Michael Jackson in Concert in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour.”

The estate’s attorney Howard Weitzman also sent a letter to HBO and the U.K.’s Channel 4, which is airing "Leaving Neverland" this month, claiming that filmmakers never attempted to reach out to the Jackson estate or any of the pop star’s family members or allies.

Depending on where your sympathies lie,  Reed’s decision to leave those voices out of "Leaving Neverland" makes sense once you watch it. Because the intent isn’t to merely grant these men and their families a platform to air their stories in all their painful fullness, but to place the viewer inside the perspectives of everyone who was taken in by the dream.

And this makes “Leaving Neverland” potentially more lethal to the resilience of Jackson’s legacy than Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly,” the searing multi-part docuseries that aired in January. dream hampton's  work is being credited for finally moving law enforcement to arrest Robert Kelly on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in Cook County, Illinois.

That only happened after 25 years of reporting, mainly by music journalist Jim DeRogatis, who filed report after report only to watch more young women fall into Kelly’s web while Kelly’s star rose even further.

Reed’s task with “Leaving Neverland” may be far more ponderous, regardless of the perceived shift in how we treat survivors in the #MeToo era — a notion, by the way, which informs another true-crime documentary series, Amazon’s “Lorena.” That series transforms Lorena Bobbitt from a woman scorned into a heroic survivor, and shows John Wayne Bobbitt to be a pathetic misogynist and pathological liar.

But honestly, most of us had all but forgotten about the Bobbitts until "Lorena." Michael Jackson, on the other hand, has always been with us.

The accused isn’t physically present to defend himself, and consistently denied all charges of child molestation when he was alive. These details are less of an issue than the casual acceptance among the public, acquittal notwithstanding, that he very likely engaged in sexual relationships with minors.

People even joke about it. Most keep on dancing.

“Leaving Neverland” may not change this, given how profoundly Jackson’s music permeates the marrow of culture and music in countries around the world. But it does leave the viewer in the thorny clarity of what we know now, making it impossible to ignore the crimes of what came before.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

All Salon Culture Editor's Picks Hbo James Safechuck Michael Jackson Tv Wade Robson