Public figures are allowed to get away with things if they’re popular. A Tory cabinet minister only has to be accused of brushing someone’s knee in a taxi before being hung out to dry. Attenborough could probably be a few million deep in a genocide before commentators started to raise questions. Countless recent stories – Savile, R Kelly, Cosby, the endless #MeToo lists – have shown that when it comes to celebrities the relationship between smoke and fire usually holds.
In this sense, Michael Jackson has long looked like a burning tyre yard. There were the allegations, the out-of-court settlements, the arrest, the trial and not-guilty verdict. But there has been nothing like Leaving Neverland, a new documentary co-produced by HBO and Channel 4 that’s more than three hours long, in which the allegations are laid out in graphic and overwhelming detail. Jackson’s estate has opposed the film, calling its revelations “absolutely false”, but that’s to be expected.
If a posthumous documentary showed that I was a monstrous paedophile, I’d like my estate to oppose it, too. The film amounts to a relentlessly grim litany of sexual abuse that ought to permanently alter how the singer is seen. It should put to rest the “Wacko Jacko” stuff, the handwaving of his behaviour as mere eccentricity. You are left in little doubt that Jackson was a sad, strange, damaged man – but also a predatory criminal.
The film revolves around the testimony of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and their families, who had separate but similar experiences with Jackson. “I wanted to be able to speak the truth as loud as I had to speak the lie for so long,” says Robson. They met the star when they were boys, in the mid-1980s. Robson won a dance competition, and would go on to have a high-profile career as a pop choreographer. Safechuck was cast in a Pepsi commercial opposite Jackson. Jackson befriended them both and soon started inviting them for sleepovers.
The sexual abuse started when Robson was just seven. Both men are compelling interviewees. They convey how exciting it must have been to be sucked into Jackson’s world at the height of his fame, although it is still astonishing the parents didn’t raise the alarm sooner. The detail of the abuse they suffered, of what Michael Jackson made these children do to him, is at times almost unwatchable.
For all its gripping testimony, Leaving Neverland is not a great documentary. It is too long, for one. I suspect the idea is to pile up so much detail as to put the reliability of the witnesses beyond doubt. But it is also entirely one-sided, with no voice from the Jackson side except from those in the archive footage. Both men brought lawsuits against the estate that were dismissed and are now being appealed. None of this diminishes the power of the interviews, which show how much damage Jackson did and continues to do, 10 years after his death. But the complete story is yet to be told. Jackson spun the people around him in a web of fame and money in which his victims were often uncomfortably complicit. Seduced by this universe, the Robson and Safechuck families allowed themselves to overlook the monster in front of them. But so did everyone else.
“People think his music’s great so he’s great,” says Safechuck towards the end. “And people grew up with him, too. He’s been a star since he was a little kid. So to think that person is doing the worst possible things to kids – it’s tough for people to wrap their heads around.” The music excused the man. It’s impossible to ignore him any longer. He told us he was bad; he was evil.
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