Content warning: This review contains disturbing information and language.
After making waves and shocking audiences at Sundance, filmmaker Dan Reed's explosive two-part, four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland finds its way to HBO, where it finally digs deep into allegations that pop superstar Michael Jackson molested several young boys throughout his career. For some, the film will be a painful sojourn through in-depth interviews with survivors of Jackson's abuse; for others it will affirm what they've believed since charges were first levied against Jackson in 1993. Regardless of which camp you fall into, however, it's certain that we can no longer ignore the testimony of those who've come forward, and it is no longer and option to defend Jackson in any way.
The bulk of the interviews come from Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, each of whom speak at length about their complicated relationships with Jackson. Each met the man by different means, and through a combination of celebrity obsession, missteps from parents and Jackson's well-planned psychological manipulation, they were molested for years while on tour with Jackson, at his Neverland Ranch home and at so-called "hideaway" apartments. The hardest pill to swallow may be interviews with the parents who insist that, at the time, they felt it perfectly normal that Jackson invited children into his room and bed or, in one case, that they left their child alone with him for an entire week while they visited the Grand Canyon. Robson and Safechuck's accounts are damning and detailed—and incredibly similar in terms of how the abuse played out. We believe them.
This makes the first part of Neverland difficult to bear, as it is explicit. The second part isn't much easier, however, and the personal toll it took on the young men—not to mention the survivor's guilt they still harbor—becomes the real tragedy. As we know, both men refused to besmirch Jackson's name for years, discrediting other survivors who were strong enough to come forward and deepening the aftermath's affect on their lives and families.
Reed provides countless pieces of evidence in the form of photos, video, audio recordings and faxes sent from Jackson to Robson that start seemingly friendly, but devolve into obsessive and terrifying. We learn of houses bought and gifts obtained, of Jackson's cold and cruel ability to teach children as young as 7 that sexual acts are just how people show love, regardless of age. And it is every bit as riveting as it is nauseating. This might dredge up uncomfortable feelings about how we regard celebrities, but as Robson points out at one point, people feel like they knew Jackson; he was a part of our lives as far back as we can remember.
The resolution, as it were, is not satisfying. Jackson of course dodged prison and died before he was ever brought to justice. Still, Neverland does force us to ask big questions: Can we still enjoy the music knowing he was a monster? Why are we so quick to defend the famous on such charges?
We believe Robson and Safechuck, but we still aren't quite sure how to feel about it all. Not good, though—that's for sure. Regardless, any Jackson defenders need to reassess, and anyone with the fortitude to watch Leaving Neverland should certainly do so.
+Eye opening and thorough
-Quite long; perhaps too painful for some
Directed by Reed
NR, HBO, 240 min.