This relentlessly spare documentary confines itself to the testimony of how two boys were groomed
Lucy Mangan – The Guardian
Another day, another slew of allegations, and another reckoning with the private behaviour and public legacy of a feted man previously considered untouchable.
In the wake of #MeToo, and the growing utterance of previously unspeakable truths, the mighty are falling fast.
Now it’s Michael Jackson’s turn to come under scrutiny. The two-part, four-hour exposé Leaving Neverland was built round the testimony of adults – Wade Robson and James Safechuck – who allege that they were abused as children by a man they worshipped. Like the participants in the recent documentary Surviving R Kelly, they have met with hostile incredulity from diehard fans who claim they are lying in the pursuit of compensation payouts. For non-diehard fans, it is hard to watch either documentary and not feel that it would be easier to make a buck in almost any other way imaginable.
Robson was an Australian dance prodigy and superfan who first met Jackson when he won a dance competition at the age of five. He says the abuse began two years later, after Jackson befriended the family to such an extent that his mother moved half the family to Los Angeles. To the boy, it was like having a magical best friend. After they’d finished playing with toys and watching movies in bed, what could be more natural than doing whatever his friend wanted, to demonstrate the special love they shared?
Safechuck wasn’t a Jackson superfan, but he and his family became devotees when he was cast in Jackson’s 1987 Pepsi commercial. Like the Robsons, they found themselves swept up and seduced by the star’s kindness, generosity, charm and glamour. Safechuck says his abuse started when he was 10. His hand shakes when he pulls out the box full of jewellery Jackson would give him “in exchange”, including the ring that was used in the mock wedding he says Jackson had them take part in. It barely fits over his fingertip now.
Both men describe their experiences at Neverland – in private rooms behind several closed doors rigged with a warning system of bells – in similar and similarly harrowing detail: that Jackson told them they would go to prison if anyone found out, and that parents, and especially women, were evil. Their accounts of what they were required to do, of the psychological processes at work (in the second part of the documentary especially, when Robson talks through his inability to tell the truth during the Jordan Chandler investigation or at Jackson’s 2005 trial) and of their mental unravellings since, are so finely grained it is difficult to believe they are confected.
Journalistic and legal standards require neutrality be observed, but as a viewer it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the star – who openly admitted he slept with boys in his bed, and was trailed by accusations of child molestation for the last 15 years of his life – did exactly what these men say he did.
Whatever the truth, as a documentary it is an astonishing piece of work. Relentlessly spare and unsensationalist, it manages better than any other in its genre not to let its attention wander from the survivors’ testimony. Footage of Jackson is confined almost wholly to that of him with the boys themselves on stage, private calls between them and family snaps. He is never allowed to overwhelm the story. And the story the men tell is one familiar to anyone with any experience, direct or indirect, of child abuse; only the scale is different. Grooming comes with a gift of the Thriller jacket and entire theme parks booked for you, rather than bags of sweets or a longed-for toy. You are made to feel special by being played unreleased music by your hero, rather than being allowed to stay up late. But at its heart it is the same. And the heart is black and through its veins runs poison.
Let us hope Leaving Neverland, and the changing times that have created space for it, are part of a deep and lasting purge.
- Leaving Neverland continues tomorrow at 9pm on Channel 4.