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Some Observations on Leaving Neverland

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2019

I watched Leaving Neverland last night in one four-hour sitting…as in I literally didn’t leave the sofa. Completely riveting. Here are some thoughts I have about it.

1. At its heart, this is not actually a movie about Michael Jackson. It’s about two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, whose lives were utterly ruined by a man they idolized & trusted. Their childhood innocence ripped away. Their families torn apart. Their current families left wondering if they can be trusted with their own children. As the movie progresses, Jackson almost fades into the background and the viewer is just left with these men, feeling and empathizing with them and their families.

2. One of the things I was most struck by, especially in the early part of the film, was the way the two men and their families described Jackson in almost a tender, loving way. There was little on-camera anger and lashing out (although there undoubtably was during their still-ongoing recovery process). I was left with a feeling of unease that in a deep and complicated way, these two men still care for Jackson. That feeling’s gonna stay with me for a loooong time.

3. As I’m writing this post, one of Jackson’s songs echoes in my head: “Heal the world / Make it a better place / For you and for me.” I have no idea what to make of this or how to process it.

4. It is pretty simple. Unless you’re willing to perform complicated mental gymnastics to bamboozle yourself into conspiracy theory land, the plain truth is that Michael Jackson was a pedophile. You can feel however you want about that — he was a monster, he was a man broken by his own abusive childhood & twisted by the vortex of fame — but you cannot simply dismiss it. Maureen Orth covered previous accusations about Jackson for Vanity Fair; her recent article is a good short summary of the facts.

5. If you’re a famous actor who spent lots of one-on-one time with Jackson when you were a child, why would you ever in a million years tell anyone that he sexually abused you?

6. A statement released by the Jackson estate said that Leaving Neverland is “the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death”. Who knows if they actually watched the film because it is the opposite of a sensationalistic hit piece. This isn’t Michael Moore bombast. The film is careful, methodical, and, aside from some slightly ominous music at times, quite respectful towards Jackson given the circumstances. As Wesley Morris writes, “‘LEAVING NEVERLAND’ is long but delicately, patiently done — and so quiet; you can practically hear yourself listening.”

7. No One Deserves As Much Power As Michael Jackson Had by Craig Jenkins:

If you don’t believe that Jackson touched anyone inappropriately, you have to reckon with the fact that he knowingly coerced families into allowing their children into his orbit while incrementally driving their parents away; that he nudged them out of the picture as they got a little older, only remembering to call when he needed someone to testify in a court of law. You have to listen to the Robson family explain how Jackson’s machinations pried the young boy’s parents apart, how the singer convinced them to move to Los Angeles from Australia, how Robson’s father committed suicide because they left him.

You come away from the film with the sense that Jackson was, at a minimum, a troubled and deeply manipulative person, more so than we’d ever imagined.

8. In Michael Jackson Cast a Spell. ‘Leaving Neverland’ Breaks It., Wesley Morris grapples with his fandom of Jackson (just as he did with Bill Cosby last year).

The story was that Jackson never molested anybody. And we stuck to it, and it stuck to him. And the question now, of course, is what do we do? It’s the question of our #MeToo times: If we believe the accusers (and I believe Wade and James), what do we do with the art? With Jackson, what can we do? Wade became a successful choreographer who’s made a career out of teaching his version of Jackson’s hydraulic bounces, whips, and stutters to Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, Cirque du Soleil and rooms full of aspiring dancers. “Look Back at It,” the big single from A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s No. 1 album from January, is built out of two Jackson hits. Michael Jackson’s music isn’t a meal. It’s more elemental than that. It’s the salt, pepper, olive oil and butter. His music is how you start. And the music made from that — that music is everywhere, too. Where would the cancellation begin?

9. Where does the cancellation begin? I have no idea about the music; I love so many of his songs (my kids are fans too, which is a whole other thing I don’t know how to deal with) but “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” now has a second sinister meaning that I will never be able to shake. I will say this though: I’ve posted a number of things about Jackson on kottke.org over the years that are unrelated to the sexual abuse allegations. Not anymore. It’s time to hear other stories.