Whether you’re a fan or not, all of us know the star power of Michael Jackson. The way that he could arrive on stage, not moving a muscle, and have a cacophony of screams ring out for what feels like an eternity. The way people would cry at the sight of him. The way people emulated his moves, his voice, his outfits. That was the power of Michael Jackson – he was an icon. He broke down barriers for artists of colour and trampled the walls between musical genres to become one of the most famous artists that ever lived. His first ever moonwalk in 1983 is still fawned over long after his death and will no doubt remain a defining moment in pop history. His songs are passed down from generation to generation, impervious to ageing.
But a new documentary could be set to destroy that legacy. Leaving Neverland, a four–hour, two-part documentary about two survivors of Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse, premieres tonight on Channel 4. Director Dan Reed interviews Wade Robson, now 36, and James Safechuck, now 40, as well as their families, about the time they spent as children, aged seven and 10 respectively, with Jackson, during which time both men allege he groomed and abused them.
We all know how famous Jackson was at that time in the late eighties and early nineties; the disguises and masks he donned to disguise himself in public, the mobs outside his hotels, the deafening screams wherever he performed. And we also witnessed his eccentricities. The baby dangling, the ever–changing face, the odd make-out session with Lisa Marie Presley. Regardless, he was untouchable; it was impossible to get near him. So, when both Robson and Safechuck talk about how surreal and thrilling it was to be chosen by Jackson who, at the time was the most famous man in the world, it’s not hard to see how easily they and their families brought into his friendship. “Everybody wanted to meet Michael or be with Michael,” James Safechuck says as the film opens. “He was already larger than life. And then he likes you.”
The tours, the ranch, a life without school. The lure was irresistible. Robson and Safechuck, and their self–confessed ‘stage moms’, actively sought out that relationship with Jackson. Both mothers accept their responsibility for the part they played in letting their sons be exposed to Jackson, letting them sleep in his bed whilst turning a blind eye to the rumours that swirled around him – because it’s obvious that no normal adult man surrounds himself with prepubescent boys as his only friends. They were enticed by gifts and the promise of a nice life – Robson’s mother relocated from Australia with two of her children because she was convinced Jackson could help her build a better life. “I have to take some of the blame for this,” she told her son. “I’m your mother and I didn’t protect you.”
While they genuinely considered Jackson a friend, right from the start of the documentary both men are precise and unflinching in their descriptions of abuse (and, it must be said, their stories are almost identical, showing Jackson to be methodical). French kissing, mutual masturbation, penetration and porn – none of it is new information, but it’s still hard to hear.
Years ago, both men had testified in court, supporting Jackson as other boys brought forward allegations of abuse against the singer. (This included 13–year–old Jordan Chandler in 1993, whose father threatened to go public with allegations and settled out of court for $23 million.)They are acutely aware of the fact that many people won’t believe their accounts because of this (and the fact that they both unsuccessfully sued his estate posthumously), but they also realise that those who haven’t been abused themselves won’t see how it’s possible for children to still love their abusers despite their actions.
With the reckoning of Me Too, it’s only now that we really realise that Jackson was able to get away with such acts for the same reason Harvey Weinstein was able to abuse and harass women for 20 years; why R Kelly was able to manipulate underage girls; why Bill Cosby could rape women undetected; why Donald Trump is president despite 19 separate women accusing him of harassment: power. These men knew that despite any allegations that came their way, power – and, by extension, intimidation – would keep them on top, and for that it was worth the risk. It’s easier for fans to believe that accusers are fame and money–hungry opportunists than find out their hero is actually a monster. The music is more important than the truth.
So, something we must reckon with in the aftermath of the documentary is this: can we still listen to Jackson’s music? He was, undoubtedly, one of the best song makers of all time. ‘Cancel culture’ – the act of removing the works of prominent artists such as R Kelly and Woody Allen from the canon after they’ve done wrong – has met its biggest match. Slate’s music critic Carl Wilson argues that, as heartbreaking as the accusations against Jackson may be, "to throw that foundational performer and songwriter’s work as a whole into the landfill would be an empty rhetorical flourish.” The Guardian’s dance critic says that it will be a “personal reckoning”, and Simran Hans, a critic for The Observer, adds “I’m not calling for him to be “cancelled” but personally I’m no longer able to square the art with the artist; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”
The title Leaving Neverland is something that relates to all of us. It forces all of use to think about leaving our own Neverlands: can we walk away from the nostalgic feeling that Jackson’s music gave us in light of Robson and Safechuck’ stories? Can we really ignore these allegations any longer, simply because it’s easier for us? No matter what your motivations are for watching Reed’s documentary, prepare to be faced with some truths that are hard to swallow.
Leaving Neverland airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on 6th and 7th March.