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'Leaving Neverland' Part 1 Review: Michael Jackson HBO Documentary

By: Steve Pulaski

It was only a matter of time before a documentary like Leaving Neverland was made. The sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson are widely known, but even after they were extensively reported, and resulted in settlements out-of-court, Jackson's death in June 2009 seemed to erase the cloud of suspicion that had left a stain on the fabric of his legacy. Topics regarding Jackson's acts of child molestation transitioned to examining his influence, undeniably elaborate dance-moves, and how his dozens of memorable songs had worked to transform pop music.

But Leaving Neverland gives shape and context to that swirling tornado of information that are the abuse allegations, and two men have bravely come forward to share their stories in a heart-pounding, deeply uncomfortable documentary. 

Shown at Sundance in its entirety before being sold to HBO and split into two 120-minute parts for television, Leaving Neverland focuses on Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who share their stories of their relationship with Michael Jackson in vivid detail. The specifics of their accounts are aided by their surviving family members and artifacts in the form of archival footage, letters, photos, and memorabilia they obtained from their time spent with Jackson as young boys. Their accounts, too, work to humanize a global superstar who had probably more power than any one human being ever should, not to mention the subsequent influence on society and media that helped keep stories like these from ever being told at his expense.

Robson and Safechuck were both young, sensitive Australian boys when they more-or-less fell onto the career-path of working alongside Michael Jackson. Robson became infatuated with Jackson at a young age, watching tapes of his music videos before seeking to embody his spirit by dressing up like the King of Pop. He was permitted to perform at a Michael Jackson dance competition at the age of five, and left such an impression on Jackson's media people, and the crowd, that he was awarded the grand prize of meeting Jackson and attending his concert. Similarly, Safechuck began working in commercials around the same time, most famously starring in an early Pepsi ad with Michael Jackson, and was intoxicated by his spirit — but not as much as Jackson was in love with his. You wish the documentary would end after about 20 minutes and there was no more for the men to say, save for illustrating the total impossibility it was for them to meet such an iconic star when they were barely of school-age.
 
But unfortunately, there's more, and the details Wade and James describe are graphic and gut-wrenching. James states how Jackson introduced him to masturbation, and how, for pleasure, he would pull apart his butt-cheeks while Jackson pleasured himself on the bed beside him. Eventually, that gave way to oral sex and other illicit behaviors in various presidential suites across the country. What's more horrifying is how the men's stories mirror in certain instances, such as how their parents' hotel rooms would get further and further away from the rooms in which Jackson and their sons would stay, and how practicing the art of not getting caught was integral to their time together.

When Jackson bought Neverland in the late 1980s, James and his family accepted an invitation to live at the Ranch with Jackson over the summer so James could show off his dance moves on tour. By then, Jackson's child-grooming tactics had worked so seamlessly that James would embrace staying with Jackson over his own parents. Both men, even as their timelines depart into their own separate, detail-specific instances of abuse, possess the same horrifying footnote of being slowly pulled away from their parents and thought to distrust their providers in favor of someone who preyed on their innocence and unfamiliarity with the life of fame. In one tearful monologue, James mentions how the misconduct seemed to be acceptable, at least in his eyes at the time, because Jackson made it clear how close they were as friends, and often spoke about how much he loved and adored their time together. Even if in the back of your mind you know something is wrong, when the person in question is subject to unprecedented fandom and adulation, how much are you willing to speak up when the culture around you reinforces that same person, let alone when you're so young and powerless?

Wade, on the other hand, joined an Australian talent school after initially meeting Jackson. He tirelessly danced at various shows before his family finally helped take his talents across the ocean to the United States, where they got back into contact with Jackson. He and his family later got talked into staying at the idyllic paradise that was the Neverland Ranch. Wade mentions sleeping in the same bed as Jackson, along with graphic details about the two kissing, touching, and showering together. 

Jackson famously got into show-business at a young age, working in conjunction with his siblings before enjoying a phenomenal solo career. His giggly, childlike behaviors suggest a man whose arrested development served as a crutch for not having a conventional childhood of his own, which would also explain him embracing the comfort of young children. At one point, James' mother mentions how Jackson would spend the night at their home, and how she would wash his clothes and make him supper, all as if he was one of their own. He thought of the Safechuck residence as a safe-house of sorts. He tried to obtain normalcy through the boys and their families as he simultaneously made them obedient and subservient to his proclamations of love.

Leaving Neverland shows the dangers of idolization and the idea of unchecked power one infallible, global superstar can be anointed. Part one of the documentary ends with the men recounting how they came to discover "other boys" and "other families" Jackson began bringing to Neverland as they approached their teenage years, one of them being Macaulay Culkin of Home Alone fame. James' mother states how she met another family at Jackson's residence once, and remembers how standoffish they were — similar to how the Safechuck's were, in large part because of how Jackson told them to be wary of others who might impede or question their relationship with each other. Trying to navigate life as a teenager is tough for anyone, but try doing it when a primary protector of you in your life, so you thought, begins to divide his attention between you and another stranger who begins getting all the love you were once used to. It's a horrifying scenario, iterated in explicit, disquieting detail, as is many of the stories in the first part of a gripping, unsettling documentary.
 
Grade: A 
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