Film Review – Leaving Neverland (2019)
I’ll be honest, this documentary affected my deeply. Since this documentary has already made a huge cultural impact, I know I’m not the only one. Though I feel that my reasons are different than most.
Those who were outraged or heartbroken by the claims of this documentary were mostly fans of Michael Jackson. They saw their image of their cherished pop-idol being completely demolished. Jackson had been an essential presence in their entertainment endeavors for years. He molded an image of goodness and innocence that transcended his music.
And now, all of that goodness is in serious jeopardy — or is already in the process of dying a swift and painful death.
But I didn’t watch this movie as a fan. I’m aware of Jackson’s legacy but I’ve stopped listening to his music for a long time — and could never really be considered a fan.
The conclusions I took from this documentary were about the fragility of human nature, how our need for love and adoration can take nightmarish shapes, how one beloved celebrity can make so many people an accessory to child abuse.
The experience made this film one of the most disturbing horror films I’ve ever seen. The fact that I believe it’s true only makes it worse.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Dan Reed
Produced By: Dan Reed
Two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, entail the harrowing tale of their relationships with Michael Jackson. From being two talented, young children experiencing fame and fortune to ultimately becoming the subject of horrific sexual abuse by the man they looked up to most.
The documentary details not just the sexual abuse they endured but also the character of Jackson himself, a predator whose exceptional wealth and innocent image gave him the opportunity to engage in his monstrous sexual appetites.
As children they don’t comprehend what’s being done to them. They don’t comprehend the everlasting damage to their psyche. They just want to be loved, they’ll do anything to be loved by this man.
As time goes on, Jackson’s presence causes rifts within family members. Besides the men, these family members entail their perception at the time, their gullibility and ignorance of the horrific nature of Michael Jackson.
Even so, after allegations begin to spring in the mainstream news, the boys’ need for Jackson’s love compels them to defend him in court — which results in his acquittal. It would be decades, as the man are far into their adulthood, after Jackson died a long time ago, for the men to finally be honest to their family members about what he had done to them.
This is their story.
There are genuine questions about the possible exploitative nature of this documentary. Even the nature of the accusers themselves — especially Wade Robson. The accused in question was acquitted of such horrific crimes. The witnesses in court, who testified that Michael hadn’t sexually abused them, are the center point of this documentary. They are now claiming that they’ve had a long sexually relationship with Michael when they were just children.
An article published by Forbes did give a worrisome account of Wade Robson’s activities before this documentary, especially in his pursuit for financial gain. The filmmakers never interviewed anyone from the Jackson estate, which naturally enraged them.
The consequences of this documentary on Jackson’s legacy can already be felt; from radio stations refusing to play Jackson’s music to the shelving of a much beloved Simpsons episode in which Michael Jackson was a guest star. Not to mention how the doc has tarnished the brand of Michael Jackson, destroying its mass-marketed appeal which will undoubtedly effect the planned Broadway musical in the works.
Since the King of Pop is not able to defend himself anymore, should we believe the bold and disturbing claims of this documentary from two men who claimed otherwise at a time when the truth mattered even more?
But questioning these men, these possible victims, is even more harmful. It gives room for doubt when victims are trying to speak out. As is usually the case, people rarely lie about these things. It should be our moral duty to believe them. So despite all the nagging thoughts and complicated questions surrounding this documentary, I do feel we should take this approach.
What Neverland Represents Now
For a long time, Neverland, Jackson’s giant 2,800 acres ranch, represented Jackson’s lost childhood. Naming it after the fictional island in which children escape adulthood, building a child-friendly amusement park on top of it, made it seem so. The reported psychical abuse Michael endured by his own father, who wanted his talented children in the spotlights for financial gain, has been well-documented. The image we got was of a deeply talented but psychologically damaged artist, who just wanted to reclaim his childhood.
This image made us forgive the alarming signals, such as having nightly sleepovers with young children. Jackson cultivated his innocent image around the world, letting children dance alongside him on stage, musing about real-life issues in much of his music.
Leaving Neverland shows us a darker secret behind Neverland. Perhaps there really was a need to experience his lost childhood, but it was also about gaining easier access to children. Questions still arise whether Jackson was suffering from delusions or had a Machiavellian streak. His manufactured delusion was the notion that he wasn’t doing anything wrong, it was just something demonized by society. Fame certainly had an impact on him. Like many, it gave him a sick and twisted delusion of grandeur. If you’re a saint in the eyes of millions, it makes it easier to rationalize your evil.
But ultimately, behind the glamor and catchy music, he was nothing more than a predator. He was someone who knows how to play around with innocent souls, making them addicts to his affections. Eventually, when he tires of their bodies, he casts them aside, not caring whether he’s breaking their hearts. He certainly doesn’t care about how his actions will affect them later in life.
When allegations first came out, it was outright denied by many. Nobody wanted to believe it. Nobody wants to believe that monsters are real. But they are real. And many of them, as we’ve come to realize later, are people we admire.
Millions of people still refuse to believe any of it, even when the victims are crying out to be heard. Nobody wants to leave Neverland. It’s such a nice place to be, the world outside is too scary.
Neverland is a place we can only be for a short time and then we have to move on. Like Peter Pan, we can’t stay children forever. Eventually we have to grow up. Just like we have to grow up from this idealized idea we had of Michael Jackson. We need to see him for what he really was. If we want to face-up to reality, and give credence to these victims, we must all leave Neverland.
Leaving Neverland raises uncomfortable questions, especially about the culpability of family members and even society as a whole — especially in how people are easily manipulated by the media.
One family member is especially blamed by family members for her willing ignorance in the matter. This person even confesses that she might never forgive herself.
But the film doesn’t condemn anyone — besides Michael of course — but does reveal our fragile human nature, our need for dreams to replace reality. Whether the two protagonists are telling the truth or not, it certainly feels like they do. During the most difficult moments of their confessions, there’s the audible sound of swallowing, the moment you feel them pushing away their sorrows.
Sometimes they seem withdrawn in their tell-tales, especially in their descriptions of their most disturbing experiences. One of the most painful aspects of their confessions is that despite everything Jackson’s done, even after gaining so much awareness of how wrong it was, they still love. This monstrous creature has crept into their psyche and they can’t seem to get rid of him completely.
Even though Jackson got away with it, it was obvious that he did decline psychologically later in life. As his obsession with plastic surgery increased, he began to look more and more like the monster he was. Like a real-life Dorian Gray, the ugliness would inevitably make his appearance. It cannot stay hidden forever. This documentary is his Dorian Gray painting revealed.
The stories of family members are just as interesting. Especially in how open the two mothers are in how they were being misled. The guilt that would inevitably settle about having left their children alone with this man, a guilt that will never let them.
It’s heartbreaking seeing them as children in the beginning, knowing what will eventually happen to them. You see their wide-eyed innocent smiles turn into something more disturbing as the movie goes on. You see their dreams turn into nightmares. A nightmare that doesn’t really end, it’s just something these men need to cope with for the rest of their lives.
It’s the kind of pain that never goes away.
Directer Dan Reed is solely focused on the victims and their family. He only cares about their stories. It’s a four-hour documentary so it’s not a short ride. Reed wants you know the whole story, he wants us to listen to all of it and it’s not easy. And it’s not supposed to be.
I had to take my fair share of breaks. I had to stop it every now and then to watch something lighthearted. Privately, I would ponder Jackson’s undeniably massive influence on pop culture. I would cringe at the idea of how so many of us, including me, defended him. I felt like we were living in a world full of sad fools.
When I finally finished, I needed some time to mull it over. I wasn’t sure what rating I could give it. As you probably have noticed, I couldn’t review it like a normal movie. This was the only way I could make sense of it.
It was an uncomfortable experience but even so, I’m honestly glad I went through with it. I’m glad I got to leave Neverland.
Leaving Neverland is uncomfortable, disturbing and heartbreaking, a four-hour confessional of two men divulging how they were sexually and psychologically abused as children by a man beloved by millions. Jackson was a man who inspired many of us, who made his everlasting mark in music history.
We might not want to hear what’s being said but that doesn’t make any of it untrue. If the film teaches us one thing, it’s that no matter how painful the truth, it’s always better than the lie.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Leaving Neverland? Comment down below!
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