Documentary review of Dan Reed's 'Leaving Neverland'
Updated: Apr 9, 2021
Child molestation allegations surrounded Michael Jackson for the last 16 years of his life, but there had never been a testimony powerful enough to alter the King of Pop’s legacy forever. Leaving Neverland, Dan Reed’s latest documentary, has undoubtedly changed that.
Two years after the first #MeToo allegations, Leaving Neverland now sees the megastar Michael Jackson come under scrutiny. This controversial and talked-about documentary shares the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who explain they were befriended and sexually abused by the singer for over seven years when they were young boys.
In the first part of this four-hour documentary, Robson and Safechuck explain how their childhood friendship with Jackson evolved into a platonic love and subsequent sexual abuse, while the second part shows how escaping Neverland seems unreachable for them. Despite the film’s hopeful title, the emotional wreckage caused by their trauma remains intact 30 years on.
The documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Festival last January, allows Safechuck and Robson to describe their molestation experiences in a graphic and overwhelmingly detailed manner, one that leaves you breathless and makes you want to take long and lengthy breaks from the TV. Leaving Neverland is as powerful as it is excruciating and uncomfortable to watch.
Despite the Jackson estate consistently calling these claims “absolutely false”, the film presents Robson and Safechuck’s respective truths in such a convincing and meticulous way –backing them up with audio, faxes, notes and archive footage– that only the most loyal Jackson fan would think there’s no fire in all that smoke.
However, Leaving Neverland is not about Jackson. It does not seek to tell his story, or even the story of his alleged abuse. It seeks to give voice to the victims and their families, nothing more, nothing less. This approach successfully avoids sensationalism, but it also makes the documentary appear extremely one-sided. On some occasions, the information shared about Robson and Safechuck is carefully selected, with the only opposing comments coming from a few conveniently picked YouTube videos.
The documentary offers a compelling look at the consequences of celebrity worship. Through interviews with Robson and Safechuck’s families, the film highlights how their desire to be part of Jackson’s inner circle made them get lost in this culture of star power and fame. Just as Surviving R. Kelly, the subjects of the documentary describe themselves as “megafans”, and explained how their idols took advantage of that, challenging the mindset that musical geniuses can’t be sexual abusers.
Dan Reed has undoubtedly failed to create a well-balanced documentary, and the complete story is yet to be told. However, whatever the truth is, Leaving Neverland has shed light on two testimonies too powerful to ignore. It may not be a film you would want to revisit, but it is definitely one that will make you reflect and definitely not forget.
Leaving Neverland aired on Channel 4 last March and is available to watch on All4 now.