It’s remarkable what happens when you take Michael Jackson out of the latest Michael Jackson scandal. Remove the usual “King of Pop” soundtrack and all that glitters, and things get so much clearer.
The details are still appalling, but what we see and hear in Dan Reed's riveting and sharply convincing four-hour documentary, "Leaving Neverland" (airing in two parts Sunday and Monday on HBO), supplies the viewer with an unexpected measure of calm. Even the outrage feels at last like the real deal, instead of the manufactured byproduct of tabloids and TMZ.
Already the talk of this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Leaving Neverland" is the story of two men - noted pop choreographer Wade Robson, 36, and James "Jimmy" Safechuck, 41 - who each tell us, with the resolute certainty that they lacked as younger witnesses deposed and questioned in other cases, that Jackson sexually molested them when they were boys, starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s and continuing into their teenage years.
What they are talking about is not just the creepy affection, playful roughhousing and tender hand-holding we were once told was the innocent expression of love between a man (Jackson), who sacrificed his own childhood to bring joy to millions, and the star-struck boys he was thus entitled to enjoy as special pals. What we get this time are disturbing, graphic and wholly consistent accounts of the predation, grooming and rape of two children by a man who wielded considerable psychological control over everyone in his environment - including the boys' parents.
To a certain degree, "Leaving Neverland" is potentially more devastating than even "Surviving R. Kelly," the Lifetime documentary that aired in January and seemed to do what a mountain of previous reporting and victim accounts could not, resulting in Kelly's Feb. 22 arrest and charges of 10 counts of alleged criminal sexual abuse of four victims - three of them minors - dating back to 1998.
A similar heap of past journalistic efforts, to say nothing of Jackson's acquittal in a prolonged and hotly prosecuted 2005 molestation trial, accompanies the unsettling facts that "Leaving Neverland" presents so unflinchingly. To say that we've all been here before and that many of us suspected this all along is an understatement; we simply have not been told this story in quite this way, at this level of frank detail.
The biggest difference between then and now, of course, is that Jackson is dead, having succumbed to a lethal dose of tranquilizers at age 50.
It's impossible, therefore, to not view "Leaving Neverland" in the context of the #MeToo movement, which emphasizes extrajudicial respect for what victims tell us about past abuse and its lingering damages. (Indeed, to watch the entire film requires a steeled resolve from the viewer; there's a warning at the beginning about the graphic descriptions and language.) It's also impossible to watch "Leaving Neverland" and not think that Jackson's goose - if it were available - is cooked. It's no different from what we've already seen with such powerful boldface names as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Bill Cosby.
A goose of another sort is, of course, in jeopardy here - the golden one of royalties and publishing rights - which is perhaps why some of Jackson's siblings and a nephew are giving interviews to defend his stature, noting that Robson already came out with his allegations in 2013 and then unsuccessfully sued Jackson's estate for damages. The Jacksons object to "Leaving Neverland" as yet another opportunistic grab for Jackson's considerable fortunes (which skyrocketed once the singer was gone and unable to squander his millions). The Jacksons have also claimed, in a lawsuit, that HBO has violated a nondisparagement clause in a deal it signed many years ago to air a Michael Jackson concert.
There's a familiar echo in the Jackson family's protest - a strategy Robson and Safechuck remember from being persuaded to defend Michael in court and depositions whenever he felt threatened: In Michael's world, his enemies live to make up terrible lies so that they can steal his money and ruin his name. In that fragile falsetto that became his public speaking voice, Michael decried his haters long before it was cool to have haters, playing his charitable side to an advantage.
How could I harm a child, he complained, when I love them so much?
None of that self-pitying, saccharine logic stands up to the astonishing and empathetic discipline of "Leaving Neverland," which remains focused all four hours on listening to Robson and Safechuck, along with their mothers, family members and spouses.
Here, at last, is the Michael Jackson documentary that has little to no use for the routine adulation of Michael Jackson, particularly the dazzling songs, performances and other proprietary clips that would form the basis of a celebrity rockumentary. Robson and Safechuck talk at some length about their awe for the star, shared by children everywhere, and it is more effective than the brief clip of "Thriller" that survives the cut.
Instead, "Leaving Neverland" makes excellent use of scrapbooks, personal photographs, videos, recorded phone messages, faxes, letters and other assorted ephemera kept by the men and their families - particularly their moms, who, by the film's end must account for the blind trust that made the abuse possible.
For much of the documentary's first two hours (Sunday's episode), Robson and Safechuck recount the happy beginnings of their separate friendships with Michael.
In Brisbane, Australia, a 5-year-old Robson won a shopping-mall dance contest in 1987 that included tickets to see Jackson in concert and meet him backstage. Two years later, on a repeat encounter, Robson - now 7 and sporting a perm so his hair would look more his idol's - got another chance to meet Jackson and impress him with his dance moves. Before they could process what was happening, the middle-class Robson family was whisked away to America and Jackson's inner circle. It wasn't long before Wade and Michael were sleeping together in hotel suites - increasingly distanced from the rest of the family.
Jimmy Safechuck's story is similar: He was the son of a hairstylist and junk hauler in Simi Valley, California, working occasionally as a child model and actor in commercials. He was cast in a Pepsi commercial in which Michael discovers a handsome boy snooping around in his dressing room, and the two become instant friends. Jackson was so drawn to Jimmy that he invited the Safechuck family on the "Bad" tour, for which Jimmy was given a cameo role dancing onstage.
His mother, Stephanie Safechuck, recalls in the film her early insistence that her son could not stay overnight in Jackson’s bed; she drew a line that was somehow quickly erased. Staying with Michael in a Paris hotel suite, Jimmy recalls, “(Michael) introduced me to masturbation and that’s how it started. ... He set it up like, ‘I’m going to show you something everybody does, and you’ll really enjoy it.’ It was like he was teaching me something new.”
Wade also specifically remembers the first time Jackson molested him, which began with fondling: "And then him guiding me to do the same thing him, moving my hands to touch his penis," Robson says. "Him talking to me (saying) 'You and I were brought together by God. We were meant to be together. ... This is how we show love.'"
A compelling aspect of "Leaving Neverland" is the similarity of the boys' accounts of these encounters - and how they mirror accounts that came later, in 1993 (from an alleged victim, Jordan Chandler, whose parents settled out of court for an undisclosed amount believed to be as high as $25 million) and in 2005 (from an alleged victim, Gavin Arvizo, whose tentative and inconsistent testimony failed to sway a Santa Barbara County Superior Court jury). The Michael Jackson molestation stories all wind up being eerily the same - the disarming ability to charm, the showering of gifts for the whole family, the air of innocence and friendship that made it all seem OK.
Wade's mother, Joy Robson, is a fascinating study in the gullibility that comes with being star-struck and treated to first-class service. By the time Jackson is routinely molesting her child, he has persuaded her to relocate with Wade and his sister to California, splitting up the Robson family, which possibly contributed to her husband Peter's mental decline. (He killed himself in 2002.)
Even now, both men talk about Jackson with a measure of care that can be heartbreaking. They each felt like they were in a relationship with him, a special bond. Safechuck opens a small box full of expensive rings that Jackson gave him, including one that the two used in a private, mock wedding ceremony.
The breakups, too, came with a hurt that felt authentic. As Jimmy got older, the Safechucks had less access to Jackson's largesse; a new boy became Michael's constant companion, and the boy's family, Stephanie recalls, "reminded me of us."
Not long after Robson's family arrived in California, they got a chillier reception from Jackson's camp, discovering that another, much more famous boy - the actor Macaulay Culkin - had become Michael's new best friend. (The film notes that Culkin denies any sexual abuse by Jackson.)
As the years went by, both the Robsons and Safechucks were rewarded for their loyalty (and testimony), but by now, Michael existed in a different universe - married twice and the father of three. Both Wade and Jimmy met and married supportive women (both interviewed here) and became fathers. But both also struggled with their secrets. The last hour of the film focuses on what happened in each family as the men finally revealed what happened - the anger, the blame, the fallout. "It still feels a whole lot better than the lie did," Robson says.
"I didn't protect my son," Stephanie says. "That will always, always haunt me. I had one job, I had one child, and I f----- up. I had all these months of loving my life with Michael and traveling and living the good life, so to speak. ... It was all based on the suffering of my son. (Jimmy) had to suffer to have this life."
Jimmy is asked whether he blames his parents for what happened. After a pause, he replies, "I'm still working on it."
Taking all this in, one can and should wonder: What about the music?
"Leaving Neverland" offers what might be the ultimate litmus test for consumers who keep finding themselves torn between loving the art and deploring the artist. In the grocery store and everywhere else where '80s music continues to be a default setting, I'm already hearing something newly disdainful in the ubiquitous playback of Jackson's later hits (mostly from "Thriller" and "Bad").
With Robson and Safechuck's words and descriptions still rattling around in my head, I can easily envision a world with 95 percent less "Smooth Criminal" in it. I've heard enough Michael Jackson to last the rest of my years. Maybe you have, too.
Sometimes I wonder whether I wasted the small chunk of my career spent at the computer keyboard thinking and writing Michael Jackson, usually on deadline. He was, after all, the biggest celebrity on the planet. That's important to keep in mind while watching "Leaving Neverland" and finding oneself in harsh judgment of Stephanie Safechuck and Joy Robson for not resisting the gravitational pull of Michael Jackson.
He was always a story, whether you were poking around for more info into whatever allegations there were (or the disastrous finances, or any of the bizarre events, up to and including dangling his youngest son, Blanket, from a Berlin hotel balcony), or trying to discern meaning in his devolving physical appearance and behavior. (Were his insecurities telling us something about race, or about parental abuse, or closeted sexuality, or maybe about the very nature of self-identity? To intellectualize and interpret him was its own art form.)
Or covering his appearances in court. During the 2005 trial, which several Washington Post reporters (including me) covered in shifts lasting two to three weeks each, I watched as prosecutors grappled with what seemed to be the right charges with the wrong witnesses.
At the trial, seriousness competed with silliness. I was there the day Michael tested the judge's patience by showing up more than an hour late, wearing fancy pajama bottoms. I was there the day Gavin Arvizo (as a child, he was referred to anonymously during the proceedings) gave an account that echoes much of what Robson and Safechuck so meticulously describe - down to the grooming techniques, sworn secrecy, sex acts and even the pet nicknames Michael gave to his special boys (Applehead, Doo-Doo Head).
One afternoon I got a seat directly behind Jackson and his parents. He was maybe 10 feet away. Usually there's an ineffable spark when a celebrity that big is that close. But I couldn't get a fix on his presence - mainly because there was no presence. Just powder, just bones in a suit. I remember writing down that he might as well be dead.
Then, sooner than anyone expected to publish one, there was the obituary. Co-writing it came as a kind of relief. Even in death, Michael was murder on East Coast print deadlines, always breaking his own news in the early evening as pages were closing and presses were running. As we threw together 2,000 words on his happy/sad life and career, I couldn't help but think: At least I won't have to write about him ever again.
Yet here we are - and with good reason. Turn off the music and listen to these men.