'Leaving Neverland': TV Review | Sundance 2019
Two men accuse Michael Jackson of years of sexual molestation in an HBO documentary series that shows why sometimes it takes four hours, many years and some missteps to finally tell your truth.
Dan Reed's two-part documentary Leaving Neverland is a perilously complicated project to review.
One thing I know for sure is that it is not in my purview as pop culture critic to pass judgment on how and where and when victims of abuse decide to tell their stories. That makes it hard to evaluate a four-hour series, targeted to air this spring on HBO and Channel 4 in the U.K., that has been structured almost entirely as a pair of side-by-side interviews in which Wade Robson and James Safechuck accuse Michael Jackson of years of sexual molestation in the most detailed and graphic of terms. They're incredibly persuasive, but I don't want to review them.
It happens that beneath these two harrowing narratives, Reed's film is also a complicated story precisely about the challenges of reviewing the film and reviewing Robson and Safechuck's filmed testimonials. The documentary doesn't shy from the fact that Robson was suing the Jackson estate as recently as four years ago, nor from the fact that both men told authorities and/or swore under oath on multiple occasions that Jackson didn't molest them. What it illustrates, and in this respect it's the film (and not just the accusers) that registers as persuasive, is that a thing that might be easy for an observer to evaluate from the outside isn't so black and white when it's your story. Leaving Neverland is, ultimately, nearly as much about the 20-plus years during which Robson and Safechuck held onto secrets or even lied and covered up the truth — and the damage that can do — as it is about the alleged crimes themselves.
Leaving Neverland is the story of two accusers and two families, where they overlap and where they diverge. Much of both stories is part of the public record. Safechuck appeared in one of Jackson's famous Pepsi commercials and went on tour with Jackson as a featured child dancer. Robson won a Michael Jackson impersonation dancing contest in Australia and shared stage time with his idol. Both can be seen with Jackson in countless pictures from locations ranging from backstage at shows to events at Jackson's famed Neverland Ranch.
What you can't see is the alleged abuse that Robson says began when he was 7 and that Safechuck says started when he was 10 — startlingly similar stories that begin with the sharing of a bed and progress to masturbation and other sexual acts that followed from extended periods of grooming and manipulation perpetrated by one of the most famous men in the world against two children whose ability to consent or not is irrelevant.
In both cases, Robson and Safechuck were accompanied by mothers who were somehow able to ignore that their children were spending an inordinate amount of time with a grown man, time that was often spent in bed or behind closed or locked doors. And in both cases, Robson and Safechuck felt they were usurped as Jackson's "favorite" by another young boy (which both "replacements" deny). Both thought they moved on. Both were wrong.
From their gerundive titles to the coincidental collaboration on the hit song "You Are Not Alone," it's tempting to compare Leaving Neverland to A&E's Surviving R. Kelly, though they take almost opposite approaches. In Surviving R. Kelly, since there's still a chance some measure of justice can be done, the filmmakers bury viewers under a mountain of accusations and evidence, bringing in accusers, authorities, investigative journalists and figures who were part of Kelly's sphere on all levels.
Reed doesn't do that. Even though depositions from the earlier Jackson accusers included corroborating statements from Neverland employees and other people with variably tangible suspicions and levels of certitude, Reed restricts his interviews to the tightest of inner circles. For Robson, it's mostly his mother and sister, both brought over from Australia once Robson attracted Jackson's attentions and both strong advocates for Jackson against those earlier accusations. For Safechuck, it's a mother who came to view Jackson as almost a son.
Reed knows that Leaving Neverland isn't going to "win." Jackson is dead. His supporters remain fanatical. What Reed wants to do is give Robson and Safechuck a safe place to share their experience as they want to and if that required four hours of screen time, so be it.
Leaving Neverland feels long, and one could argue a tighter two-hour film would have been equally effective. It just might not have reflected the truth they want to tell. Reed mostly knows to keep the camera on his main subjects, but he isn't always sure what to cut away to. For a while, the soaring drone shots over idyllic California or Australian suburbs, accompanied by Chad Hobson's John Williams-channeling score, gives a Spielberg-esque flavor, a nod to either Jackson's promise to help both of his alleged victims with filmmaking careers of their own or to how this story is a perverse and tragic play on either E.T. or Peter Pan. Eventually, it just feels like a use of drones because those cheaply produced overhead shots have become a scourge of recent documentary visual grammar. Reed's on better footing when he accompanies Robson and Safechuck's memories with available footage from Neverland and other Jackson properties.
If you wonder why they wouldn't have told their parents at the time, why they might have been willing to stand by Jackson in his moment of need, why they might both have grieved Jackson upon his death, Leaving Neverland is much about that as it is about whether or not Jackson was a serial abuser of young men. It's all complicated and heartbreaking and just as their perspectives aren't the same today (both are relatively new fathers) as when they were pre-teens or in their twenties, it's doubtful you'll feel exactly the same after watching four hours of Leaving Neverland — whether you came in having already shredded your Thriller albums or prepared to picket a Sundance premiere to protect Jackson's memory.
Production company: Amos Pictures Ltd.
Director-producer-cinematographer: Dan Reed
Editor: Jules Cornell
Executive producers: Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller, Tom Porter
Composer: Chad Hobson
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)