That approach can make Leaving Neverland claustrophobic and draining, but it also makes it powerful. The two stories of how the two boys entered Jackson's personal orbit share the same broad outline: Robson, who was born to a middle-class family in Australia, was discovered as a young dancer in a competition and invited to join Jackson onstage during a concert, eventually moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry; Safechuck, who lived in California and worked as a child actor, was cast in a Pepsi commercial featuring Jackson and eventually befriended the singer. In both cases, Jackson first earned the trust of the boys' families by inviting them out to his Ranch for friendly sleepovers, where he showered them with attention, affection, and gifts. Later, according to the two men, Jackson would sexually assault them repeatedly over the course of years.
To severely understate the matter, the legal specifics surrounding Jackson's alleged crimes are complicated. In 1993, when the family of 13-year-old Jordan Chandler alleged that Jackson molested their child, Robson and Safechuck were called on to defend Jackson, which they did. (The case was later settled out of court for $23 million.) Over a decade later in the mid-'00s, Robson, who by then was a successful choreographer for artists like *NSYNC and Britney Spears, again testified in Jackson's defense, along with fellow celebrity-Jackson-friend Macaulay Culkin, against charges that Jackson molested 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo. In that case, Jackson was found innocent.
For some viewers, there might be a sense of déjà vu to this latest controversial documentary: That second trial can partially be traced back to public criticism over Jackson's odd behavior in another documentary, 2003's Living With Michael Jackson, which was built around an extended interview between the artist and British journalist Martin Bashir. Amidst much speculation about Jackson's plastic surgery and his spending habits, the special featured an interview with Arvizo, who appeared next to Jackson. Throughout both these trials, Jackson and his legal team argued that he was completely innocent and unjustly persecuted, a position he held up until his death in 2009 at the age of 50. Unsurprisingly, Jackson's estate has sued HBO in advance of Leaving Neverland and is currently seeking $100 million in damages; they've also offered up their own counter-programing options for fans. (Those fans have been especially active online in recent days to defend their hero.)
The chronological, straight-forward style of Leaving Neverland feels like a self-conscious attempt to carefully strip the story of its lurid, tabloid qualities. (Living With Michael Jackson is often best remembered for its gauzy, sensationalistic aesthetic.) In the second half, brief clips from TMZ and YouTube are presented in a garish, disruptive manner that's offset by the rest of the movie's more removed, sterile tone. The tasteful aerial shots of California exteriors, framed as if filmed by from God's eye (or Google Earth) view, and the dramatic string-drenched music cues are repetitive, but they're not exactly overbearing. The relative austerity of Reed's filmmaking choices blends into how Robson and Safechuck construct their own narratives on camera: Both describe their alleged abuse in a graphic, clinical manner that's shocking for its matter-of-fact delivery.