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Jeff Simon: The brute shock of seeing Michael Jackson in 'Leaving Neverland'

Jeff Simon

It is literally true that when Dan Reed's massive (four-hour) documentary film "Leaving Neverland" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the cops of Park City, Utah feared there would be major disorder in the streets. The festival director John Cooper wanted attendees to know that "health care professionals" would be available to anyone who needed to talk, either during the film or afterward.

So said reports in Rolling Stone and elsewhere.

Oh, come now we're tempted to say. There was, in fact, no major disorder. And, as for "health care professionals" it sounds like an old William Castle come-on for horror films like "The Tingler" and "Strait Jacket" which were supposedly too strong for some people to handle. "Leaving Neverland" couldn't be that tough to watch, we might say.

And now a word from the news: it is. I had so much trouble with the first two hours, which premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO, that I paused a little as I watched and poured myself a cup of coffee a couple of times. I think the second two hours of the film, airing at 8 p.m. Monday, can be watched with more equanimity and less emotional affect.

But those first two hours, are truly horrifying. Call the film a "horror documentary." Few pieces of horror fiction are likely to exceed the rage and disgust that comes from watching the first two hours of Dan Reed's documentary about two men who have been insisting for years that they were long-term childhood victims of sexual abuse by Michael Jackson.

Wade Robson, 37, says he was abused beginning at age 7, and Jimmy Safechuck, 41, says his abuse by Jackson started when he was 10. It's the horror of those first two hours that while we listen to the men tell ultra-graphic stories about what Jackson did to them, that you see abundant photos and film footage of those sweet and innocent little boys who wanted nothing more than to imitate Jackson, in dress and in performance.

Your heart begins to break from thinking about the defiling of such innocence. And then your disgust and anger might well take over.

Which is why I have a suggestion for anyone who watches all four hours of "Leaving Neverland" (which I heartily recommend for both its power and importance). It was my thought that it is probably best watched on DVD or DVR where you can pause when Part One literally becomes unbearable.

What is difficult to maintain after seeing it is that Jackson was just an overgrown child his whole life. This is a very different Jackson from the one so many have wanted to believe in. These two former boys are introducing us to a cold, calculating, manipulative monster.

There is a great deal of footage of Jackson and his involvement in these boys' lives including in concert and on the road and at his gigantic fantasy kingdom "Neverland." Repeatedly, you see Neverland's vast corridors and closeups of a man who is not an overgrown boy, but is a truly diabolical predator who separated one of the boys, Robson, from his own family at the tenderest of ages.

Look at those eyes all through the beginning of "Leaving Neverland." Tell me if you're looking into the eyes of an overgrown naive child. Or if you're looking into the eyes of a man who knows all about conniving and virtually limitless power and calculation able to do almost anything he wants.

The remaining Jackson brothers and a nephew have been doing their best to fight back against the huge wallop of the documentary. But they're no match for the complexity, power, conviction and authority of Reed's film. All they can do to defend Michael is say "it's all about the money" and that Robson and Safechuck still hope to collect even though both have had suits dismissed out of court for being outside the statutes of limitations.

The Robson case is a particularly difficult one. When Jackson was prosecuted for sexually abusing another boy, Robson was a very effective witness in Jackson's defense, keeping him from going to jail. Robson now says he lied at trial (and long before) because he didn't want to be the one to send Jackson off to incarceration. It might sound tough to credit his veracity unless you fully understand the complexities of his life.

He is, in adulthood, a choreographer and director who has, among many others, worked with Britney Spears. If Michael Jackson hadn't found him when Robson was a boy in Australia, Robson's life would have been different.

But that initial gratitude is the horror that is slowly dismembered in the film. What was happening is that Jackson didn't just control and then defile boys, he controlled and disrupted families with his unbelievable wealth and fantasy. He manipulated parents, in particular mothers, who grew to love him enough to let their boys sleep alone in the same bed with the grown superstar.

There, I think, is the answer to why Robson defended Jackson when he went on trial. What Robson's mother had done to the entire family was split it into two parts. She and the son Michael "loved" so much, traveled to America so that her boy could make it in show business, leaving her older son and daughter and her husband in Australia. Robson's parents, obviously, never recovered emotionally. So we're told.

What Robson says now, convincingly, is that he had to become a father himself to understand fully what had been done to him and his family. That's in Part Two. Safechuck says something similar.

It makes sense that Robson, at first, protected Jackson, because he was protecting his own mother. She periodically made some doubts known even though she was no match for every lever Jackson had at his disposal.

Jackson made sure that her bedroom, when they traveled, kept on being farther and farther away from the one Michael stayed in with her son.

What Robson, had to do, then, was come to terms with what he grew to feel was betrayal by his own stage-struck mother. It's hard for a son to deny the love of the most important person in his life--his mother. It took many years. Hostility and disillusion came first for the boy and equanimity eventually. His mother's sorrow at her own actions, she now says, is total.

But you can understand how so much victimhood would require a boy to defend defiler and enabler both until the time came when he was strong enough to tell his horrible true story.

I reviewed The Jacksons, starring Michael, when they performed as a family in what was then Rich Stadium. In retrospect, it's not hard to see it cynically as a family solidarity move by a manipulative transgressor.

What is incontestable about Michael Jackson is his genius as a performer, songwriter and record maker. What viewers of "Leaving Neverland," though are liable to be convinced of afterward, is the hideous underside of the epochal and epochally popular figure in American entertainment.

This has become a huge popular problem all over American entertainment. We are, on all sides, beset by truly great figures who gave us undeniably brilliant and world-changing work, only to be revealed as private monsters.

What we know now from works like "Leaving Neverland" doesn't stop "Billie Jean" or "Thriller" or "Rock With You" from being great records. It doesn't change what Jackson found in Jackie Wilson and turned into genius as a live performer.

The problem bedevils us. Whether we like it or not, Bill Cosby was one of the handful of great stand-up comics of all time--in his first 20 years, anyway.

The list is very long now of the talent we have now come to know as monsters.

I honestly don't know how we can all reconcile this horrific cognitive dissonance. We're all struggling with the same problems.

I suspect, somehow, that time will offer us a way we can live with more easily than we can now.

For the moment, though, this two-part documentary that so often seems like a legal brief  is a huge turning point for all America in how we continue to think about love and life and fame.

As tough to take as it is, things aren't as we thought.

We are the world, not Michael Jackson. We have to keep on living and remembering that.








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