Michael Jackson left an indelible mark on pop culture for decades. Jackson might be the single largest star in the history of American culture. The longevity of his career and his talent have never been in doubt. However, the specter that lived in the shadows of his career were the allegations of pedophilia and sexual assault against children. At times, these became jokes on South Park, Family Guy, and other comedies. These allegations pushed him out of the public eye, but after his death in 2009, it seemed like the public had moved on.
However, Leaving Neverland looks to remind us about the true pain and suffering caused at the hands of Jackson. Through unflinching interviews with two of his victims, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, their stories are told. The interviews dive deep into the life with Jackson, helping to show how the pop star could get people to side with him. Even his victims felt a special connection to him in ways that are difficult to understand. What was once a joke can never feel like it again after watching the intense Leaving Neverland. The discussion around Jackson will undeniably change after watching this footage.
The story begins in the 1980s, with two boys living worlds away. Each of the boys has a different relationship to Jackson before meeting him. James (Jimmy) began his relationship with Jackson because of a Pepsi commercial. He was not a fan before, but once his family began hanging out with Jackson, they grew close.
Meanwhile, Wade idolized the man. After seeing the “Thriller” video, he began to break down the music video to learn all the moves. When Jackson visited Australia, he entered a dance competition where first place would meet the star. He won the competition, and Jackson became so enamored with Wade’s devotion, he convinced Wade’s mother to move to Los Angeles.
The interviews, pulled together by Dan Reed, remain extremely focused throughout the two-part documentary series. Despite the four-hour runtime, Reed grips you and never lets go. He splices in some footage of the pop star at times over the years, but 80% of what you watch are the testimonials of the victims and their families. With each passing moment and detail of their stories, you feel the sadness and grief emanating off the men.
The most striking thing about the documentary are the ways the men talk about their emotions and mental state. Perhaps nothing is more saddening than the justifications given to them by Michael. What’s worse, is that they internalized these justifications, causing deep scars in their emotional psyche. They would live their lives by the lies that were formed in their youth, causing them to place blame on themselves.
Reed expertly juggles the challenge and focuses on their interviews more than archival footage. That choice, to take an extremely pointed and specific side of these stories, gives this film power. You can feel every moment of grief from each member of the family. You can watch families be torn apart by Michael and the anger that persists. The one that that feels impossible to do is cast doubt on these men. The specificity and haunting descriptions of their lives with Michael Jackson are a tough watch. Yet that challenge to the monolith of a pop star makes each accusation ring with authenticity. We may never look at Jackson the same way again.