‘He told me if anyone ever found out what we were doing, we would both go to jail…’
For many people, this documentary represents something of a dilemma. Michael Jackson’s alleged crimes stand at odds with his persona as a legendary musician. While it is pretty goddamn easy to drop Lost Prophets and Gary Glitter from any party playlist, Michael Jackson is in a different league all together. Luckily, as someone who can count on one hand the number of Jackson songs that I find even remotely tolerable, the fallout from Finding Neverland will have no immediate effect on me in any kind of meaningful way. The debates will rumble on. Guilty or innocent? Child rapist or genius? It seems unfathomable but it is possible to be both of course. One doesn’t preclude the other, regardless of how radical a concept that appears to be.
This is not a philosophical dissertation however. This is a film review and, as such, the only aspect of Finding Neverland that I am concerned with, is whether it is a good film or not. Let us begin…
James Safechuck and Wade Robson were two of a menagerie of children that popstar Michael Jackson surrounded himself with during his decades long career. Leaving Neverland is their account of the years of sexual and emotional abuse they suffered at the hands of Jackson, and the subsequent effect this has had on their lives.
Leaving Neverland is primarily a film about Safechuck and Robson. We have in depth interviews with Safechuck and Robson themselves, as well as accounts from their various family members. Jackson’s disgraceful indescrations are explored in great detail. I’m not sure what the audience gains from such explicit depictions of sexual assault but if the victims feel this vindicates their story somehow then I suppose it is justified.
UK director Dan Reed has created a documentary that is definitely important. If the allegations against Jackson are true, and I see absolutely no reason to dispute that they are, then it is only right that he is exposed for the monster that he was. But is Finding Neverland a good film? I’m not so sure. It’s far too long for one thing. The understandably grim tone and the repetitive nature of the victim’s testimony is difficult to take for over four hours and while a film like this should be demanding, there is a feeling that Reed goes a little over the top in places.
Similarly, while Safechuck and Robson fully deserve the time and focus to allow their tragic story to breathe, It would have been useful to have had some background info on Jackson himself. We have nothing about his childhood, his personal life beyond Safechuck and Robson, or his musical career. There are other documentaries that are more comprehensive no doubt but there was an opportunity here to dig deeper into Jackson’s life in order to provide context to his horrific crimes. Leaving Neverland never really does this, instead opting for hours of interview footage that is lacking any real evidence aside from the word of two young men. While it is not the job of a filmmaker to provide proof in what should be a criminal case, any kind of evidence besides word of mouth may have helped to add even more credibility to the accusations made by Safechuck and Robson.
In the end, Leaving Neverland will no doubt be remembered as one of the television events of 2019. In truth though, now that the dust is beginning to settle, it feels more like a missed opportunity.
A film that had to be made but also one that could have been executed better.