leaving neverland review

For those of us who grew up in the era of Michael Jackson, the rumors were rampant. The tabloids dubbed him “Wacko Jacko”, and speculation ran wild. His odd persona, his changing skin-tone, his aloofness. Who was this man-child superstar? And why did he have such an obsession with children? Children followed Jackson everywhere – they accompanied him on tour, they stayed at his Neverland Ranch. He was like the Pied Piper, a musical deity with a train of kids forever trailing him. But anyone who knows the Pied Piper story knows it ends in tragedy, with the music man leading those enamored children into darkness.

With the rumors came full-blown speculation – abuse, molestation, and worse. The first public accusation ended with a settlement out of court. The second with an acquittal. Jackson receded even further into the shadows, his physical appearance becoming more strange, his time in public seemingly at an end. And then came his sudden, unexpected death at the age of 50. The King of Pop’s demise seemed to obliterate all those rumors that had plagued him for so long. He was no longer Wacko Jacko. He was something akin to a musical saint. But death doesn’t forgive wrongdoing. It merely pushes it back into the darkness. Sooner or later, though, it comes crawling back into the light. Dan Reed‘s gut-wrenching 4-hour documentary Leaving Neverland is that light the possible truth has crawled back into, for all the world to see. And what they’re about to see is hideous.

Before we go any further, a disclaimer: as I mentioned above, Jackson was acquitted on a charge of child molestation. In the eyes of the legal system, he’s still an innocent man, and to proclaim him to be 100% guilty of the charges in Leaving Neverland is above my pay grade. But as Reed’s brutal, unflinching, and often sickening doc unfolds, it’s nearly impossible to draw any other conclusion. Was Michael Jackson a pedophile? When the four-hours of Leaving Neverland ended, it became nearly impossible for me to think that he wasn’t.

Reed’s doc – which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and airs on HBO in March – focuses on two of Jackson’s alleged victims, Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck. Both are grown men now, but when they met Jackson, they were very young. Robson, who grew up in Australia, came to the attention of the King of Pop when he won a Michael Jackson dance contest. Safechuck appeared in a commercial with the superstar. Both say they were not only molested by Jackson, but that they entered into what they thought of as a full-blown romantic relationship with the man. Robson was 7 when this started. Safechuck was 10. The abuse of both would go on for years.

Leaving Neverland lets Robson and Safechuck tell their stories in harrowing detail. One of the most jarring elements of the film is the way it so casually dives into the molestation claims. After a set-up that seems carefree, light-hearted, and even amusing – the boys meet Jackson, become awed by his stardom even as Jackson becomes something akin to a family friend – Robson and Safechuck both then begin describing, in graphic detail, the sexual activities Jackson forced on them. What makes this extra horrifying, and all the more believable, is that the two men describe Jackson’s sexual proclivities in almost identical ways. Jackson apparently had certain sexual rituals he liked to engage in, and hearing Robson and Saefchuck describe them similarly, but separately, paints a damning portrait.

There’s no way to sugarcoat a story like this, but it cannot be overstated how exhaustingly horrifying much of Leaving Neverland is. I grew up loving Michael Jackson’s music, and there are still several of his songs I’m a fan of. But as Robson and Saefchuck detailed their sexual abuse at Jackson’s hands, I found myself growing sicker and sicker, to the point where if I ever hear a Jackson song on the radio again, I might have to quickly snap it off before I vomit.

leaving neverland movie

The portrait of Jackson here is not that of a misunderstood man-child, or a clueless, harmless weirdo. Instead, Leaving Neverland paints him as nothing short of monstrous. Because not only did Jackson allegedly abuse these children, he also used his power to manipulate their families. There are some things that cannot be disputed. Even if you refuse to believe Jackson was a molester, it was well documented that the King of Pop would often let his young fans sleep with him, either in his bedroom at his Neverland estate, or in hotels on tour. Often, the children would sleep in the same bed. There’s no denying this happened. And when you hear that, your immediate thought might be: how? How did parents allow this to happen?

Leaving Neverland has the answer. Because not only are Robson and Safechuck interviewed, but so are their extended families. And we learn the ways Jackson wooed and wowed these normal people with his mega-stardom. They were so used to Jackson’s public image that they just assumed they knew him, and that they could trust him. At the same time, Leaving Neverland doesn’t excuse these terrible decisions, and there’s a guilt that lingers over the parents interviewed here. A guilt they can never really let go of.

Split into two parts, the first section of Leaving Neverland is the most disturbing. The second half is where a kind of catharsis comes in. Here is where Robson and Safechuck talk about their lives after Jackson, and their attempts to come to terms with it all. Is there hope? Is there redemption? Is there any sort of bright side to all this pervasive darkness? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. But Leaving Neverland is about as close to a must-see as one can get. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s something worth paying attention to.

Reed’s filmmaking doesn’t exactly set the world on fire. He relies on standard talking-head interviews, intercut with archival footage, old photographs, and steady drone shots overlooking several locations. It’s a tad uninspired, but at the same time, Leaving Neverland doesn’t need an excess of style. The survivor’s stories are what matter most, and Reed understands that all he really needs is to let them talk. To let their story be heard. And to let the chips fall where they may.

Michael Jackson will always have fans, and he’ll always have defenders. His guilt is something the viewer is going to have to decide for themselves. Do you want to believe Jackson was innocent, simply because you’re a fan of his work? Or do you want to believe these two men, who lay their souls bare in front of the camera, are telling the truth with the hopes of finding some kind of closure? I certainly know where I stand on the matter. And once the credits roll, I think you will too.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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Leaving Neverland will premiere on Sunday, March 3, and Monday, March 4 on HBO.

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net