A decade after his death, Michael Jackson’s legacy is on life support.
And through the unflinching lens of Leaving Neverland, an HBO documentary that feels more like blunt-force trauma, viewers must decide if they can ever again listen to “Thriller” or “Beat It” without thinking about Wade Robson and James Safechuck.
It may be impossible to do.
The only thing you won’t feel after watching this is nothing at all.
Though allegations of child molestation first swirled around Jackson in 1993, in a case he eventually settled out of court, Robson and Safechuck corral the swirl and freeze it in time. Through the haunting prism of their personal experiences, Jackson morphs from superstar to predator. With every shocking memory Robson and Safechuck share, every harrowing detail of their alleged sexual abuse, Jackson’s legacy flatlines. And the case for pulling the plug has never been stronger.
Robson was 7 years old when Jackson befriended him and his family. Safechuck was 10 years old when he was pulled into Jackson’s orbit after co-starring with the singer in a Pepsi commercial. The footage of them as young boys in Leaving Neverland is horrifying when juxtaposed with their allegations of sexual abuse.
Robson was from Australia. Safechuck lived in California. But one of the most striking elements in Leaving Neverland is how their stories transcend time and space, intersecting in an eerie quicksand familiar to sexual abuse survivors.
That Jackson gravitated toward children is not up for debate. Those on his (posthumous) side — including fans, relatives and his estate, which is suing HBO for $100 million — say the attraction was innocent and pure. Fame deprived Jackson of childhood; he never grew up. He was a Peter Pan in an actual Neverland, his sprawling property with a movie theatre, amusement park and zoo animals.
That Jackson’s family and fans are seething over this documentary is neither surprising nor entirely intolerable. Jackson is no longer around to defend himself, and for years, including in sworn depositions related to other cases, both Robson and Safechuck denied they had ever been sexually abused.
But that is why Leaving Neverland is so disturbing and compelling.
While Robson and Safechuck outline what they endured with brutal precision, they are also remarkably honest and matter-of-fact about the grey-area “love” they felt for Jackson. What comes to life is the conflicted feelings they still feel toward a man who personally wronged them while making the world a better place.
Jackson wasn’t just their abuser; he was their hero. He wasn’t just the most famous pop star in the world; he was part of their family. Both men spent their formative years seeking validation from their demigod. And now, as adults, they must make sense of what happened and why. They must analyze their love and their hate.
Which brings us back to Michael Jackson’s legacy.
After we exit Leaving Neverland, after we process the sickening anecdotes of what Jackson allegedly did to Robson and Safechuck, how do we separate the art from the artist? How can we ever again in good conscience listen to a Jackson song?
I suppose everyone must make a personal decision. Me, I feel deep sympathy for all involved. My heart breaks for Robson and Safechuck and their families. I pity Jackson fans, even those who are now unfairly condemning Robson and Safechuck. I even feel sorry for Michael Jackson who, if you believe Leaving Neverland, was sick beyond words, but who never got any help at any step of his doomed journey.
Jackson was a once-in-a-generation talent who left behind a body of work that is still impacting popular culture. I’ve DJ’d enough parties to appreciate the timeless dance-floor power of “Billie Jean” or “Bad.” Jackson wrote songs that resonated in every corner of the planet. As a performer, as a showman, he reshaped music and influenced dozens of stars who remain today.
But his genius and talent can’t overdub the allegations in this film.
More than anything Jackson did on stage or in the studio, the evidence in Leaving Neverland can’t be unseen and unheard. It is overwhelming. It is suffocating.
Michael Jackson was a monster attracted to young boys.
Michael Jackson infiltrated families to abuse their children.
And no music, however heavenly, can drown out these demons.
Vinay Menon is the Star’s pop culture columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @vinaymenon and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org