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Television

Review: HBO’s ‘Leaving Neverland’ is a disturbing portrait of Michael Jackson and childhood trauma

L.A. Times television critic Lorraine Ali discusses the HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland" with L.A. Times Today anchor Lisa McRee. The L.A. Times Today airs on Spectrum News 1, Monday-Friday at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Television Critic

Michael Jackson’s been gone since 2009, but when “Leaving Neverland” arrives Sunday on HBO, it does so amid a new, or perhaps rekindled, controversy regarding the King of Pop.

The two-part film also joins the slew of TV documentaries that look back at major cultural touchstones of celebrity scandal or crime, including ones on R. Kelly, Lorena Bobbitt, Ted Bundy and O.J. Simpson. This isn’t, however, a comprehensive retrospective on the 20th century’s greatest celebrity fall from grace.

It is, instead, a story of relative unknowns, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and it’s through their eyes we see Jackson. It’s a sordid picture, to say the least. Now men in their 30s and 40s, respectively, both were young boys when the singer befriended them.

FULL COVERAGE: Michael Jackson documentary »

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This powerful documentary chronicles their never-before-told firsthand accounts of how he endeared himself to the boys, how their families fell in love with Jackson, and how he allegedly got away with sexually molesting them for decades.

They met Jackson years apart and on different continents, but both men offer disturbingly similar accounts that chronicle the manipulative process of a pedophile, the queasy emotional and physical intimacy between victim and abuser and how celebrity trumped accountability and common sense at most every turn. Leaders of the Jackson estate, who declined to appear in the film, deny all the criminal allegations, and the estate is now suing the film’s producer and director, Dan Reed.

The men, both of whom are now fathers, said they were compelled to finally come forward to help other victims of childhood sexual abuse, and it’s likely the #MeToo movement helped bolster their willingness to speak. Yet even now they struggle with their emotions regarding Jackson. Both say they loved him.

For viewers, the film is uncomfortable and troubling, but it’s impossible to look away even while it’s clear this tale has a tragic end or, at best, a life’s worth of psychological damage.

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“Leaving Neverland” is heartbreaking and hard to watch for many reasons, among them that Jackson is such a part of our collective history. Although there are pacing issues here and the filmmaker could have used a few more sources to widen the story, it’s a compelling look at childhood trauma, fame and the mechanics of pedophilia.

The film starts with Safechuck recalling meeting Jackson at the age of 9 on the set during a Pepsi commercial shoot in Los Angeles. The singer took a shine to the child actor, inviting him and his family to his Encino estate and eventually visiting their modest San Fernando home for dinners and movie night. “He was like my son,” said Safechuck’s mother of Jackson. “I even washed his clothes.”

Gradually, the parents let their guard down, allowing their son to spend more and more time with Jackson alone, including going on tour with the singer, and allowing him to sleep in the same hotel bed with him. Safechuck said the sexual advances started early on, as did Jackson’s proclamations that he loved him. Jackson even staged a secret, mock marriage, claims Safecuck, complete with a diamond-encrusted ring.

Safechuck shows the ring on camera now, and it’s so small it doesn’t fit over his first knuckle. It’s a sad, compelling image — one of many in the documentary.

The Australian Robson was 5 when he met Jackson after winning a talent contest by performing tracks off “Bad” — the prize was a meet and greet. By the time he was 7, he’d moved to L.A. with his family largely to be under the wing of Jackson, who was helping his dancing career.

Neverland ranch near Santa Barbara was the staging area where Robson alleges Jackson wooed his family into staying, allowing the boy to spend more and more time with him alone at the “magical” compound.

Neither of the boys told their parents, or anyone else, what was really going on, and said they were coached by Jackson on how to respond if anyone asked about their sexual behavior. It was training they said helped when they publicly defended Jackson during the first round of allegations against the singer, which coincidentally was around the same time he bought Safechuck’s family a home.

When the boys aged, they saw themselves being replaced by younger models, but Jackson still kept them close by.

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Devoted Jackson fans have decried “Leaving Neverland” as yet another targeted hit piece on a gentle, misunderstood man. They fervently believe the narrative that Jackson’s childhood was ripped away from him, so he selflessly devoted his life to helping other children. But their identities are intertwined with Jackson’s undeniably genius work and if the ugly and criminal accusations in this film are true, it’s foundation-rattling.

For everyone else, it’s further evidence that Jackson got away with the unthinkable — using his power to dazzle then betray the trust of children, stealing their innocence as if it might fill the void left by the loss of his.

‘Leaving Neverland’

Where: HBO

When: Part I: 8 p.m. Sunday; Part 2: 8 p.m. Monday

Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali

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