This HBO documentary has so many creepy moments that it’s difficult for any to stand out. Here’s one that did.
Imagine that your kid brother is living a real-life fairytale: he’s best buddies with with the world’s biggest music star. He hangs out at the guy’s cool-ass mansion, eats ice cream and plays videogames with him, and hears secrets that Vanity Fair would die for.
It sounds unbelievable, a fantasy concocted by the biggest bullshitter on the playground (“I’m going steady with Miss America! No, you can’t meet her, she goes to another school!”) but this is actually happening, in real life. It’s enough to make you believe in magic.
Years later, you turn on the TV. A child exactly like your younger brother is accusing the pop star of abusing him.
Wouldn’t your brain…implode? Shatter from the cognitive rewrites it has to do? The fairytale is instantly gone. All of those years of happiness now have a sinister new context. Was this what was happening to your younger brother? Those holidays and funpark rides and sleepovers…was this the price? Why didn’t you spot it? Are you stupid, a rube?
That’s the situation the brother of Wade Robson (one of the two subjects of the documentary, with James Safechuck being the other) found himself in 1993. It’s emblematic of how the Michael Jackson story has ended: too good to be true. I’ve heard alcohol described as a way of robbing happiness from tomorrow. Michael Jackson was cultural alcohol: the past was fun; but now the hangover has arrived. To be fair, Michael Jackson may have stolen happiness from some people’s present, too.
I grew up in the 90s, when he seemed terrifying: a raceless, genderless skeleton with bleached skin and a face crafted from paper mache. I laughed when people called him a “sex symbol”. For whom? Department store mannequins?
If I’d grown up in the 80s, I might have had different memories: an impossibly talented vocal acrobat who (along with Quincy Jones) created the 80s as they are now remembered.
But even then there was something “off” about him, something indefinably wrong. In 1984 Michael Jackson won eight Grammy awards for Thriller, which had sold thirty-four million copies in twenty months. He was accompanied to the awards ceremony by Brooke Shields, one of the most desirable women on the planet, but he spent the entire evening ignoring her in favor of twelve-year-old Emmanuel Lewis, who sat on his lap.
Things deteriorated after Jones left his life. As the nineties rolled around, he had a reputation as a talented but eccentric and even faintly sinister man – Howard Hughes with a surgically reconstructed nose. The tabloids aggressively hounded him, and this became a narrative upheld by fans to this day: poor Michael Jackson, harassed by the media. Can’t they all just leave him alone? But if one half of Leaving Neverland is true, the media didn’t harass him nearly enough.
It’s a documentary about false and true narratives: it doesn’t hide (for example) the fact that Safechuck and Robson testified that Michael Jackson never touched them during the Jim Chandler trial in 1993. However, it puts this in proper context – they were kids who had been Michael’s favorite. They wanted to be his favorite again. They wanted his approval, his love, and when Michael coached them on what to say in court, they said it.
The documentary runs for four hours. There’s a lot of biographical detail on two people you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re a hardcore Jacko defender with his entire legal saga pinned on the wall with red tape (in which case, your opinions about Safechuck and Robson are probably negative). At first homespun folksy stories of S&R’s childhoods seem pointless, but they quickly prove their worth: Jackson is such a massive figure that it’s easy for everyone in his orbit to seem like a 2D cutouts, as inhuman as the dancing zombies in “Thriller”. The director wanted to make the accusers seem like people you know.
If so, it worked. I believe them. They seem credible. Misremembering a date or a location is typical when twenty five years have passed, and so is feeling affection for one’s molester. There’s detailed descriptions of sex acts, which gives the documentary a compulsive rubbernecking-the-car-crash aspect. Tip: if you don’t want to hear stuff like “In Paris, he introduced me to masturbation”, maybe watch Regular Show instead. Even more unsettling is the desperate manipulation Michael tried towards the end to stop his entire house of cards collapsing.
The bottom line? Michael Jackson was probably a pedophile. His defenders were wrong. Their webpages and blog posts and Facebook groups (“TOP 10 PROVEN SAFECHUCK LIES!!! #MJINNOCENT”) are barricades built to defend a man who only exists inside their imagination.
Where does this leave Michael Jackson in the year 2020? Is he “cancelled”? Is that even possible? There’s a psychological term called “splitting” – an inability to view people as having both good and bad sides. Michael’s strongest defenders clearly love his music, and certain aspects of his personality (philanthropy, generosity, etc) inspired them. Claims that he molested children represent a threat to that image of Michael, which is why they argue themselves into logical pretzels defending him.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can still enjoy Michael’s music (and be inspired by the positive sides to his character) without retreating into solipsistic delusion. Start with the man in the mirror. Michael Jackson caused people to become better – it was what he loved to do – and we become better when we embrace the truth. Watch Finding Neverland and let him change you one final time.