Friday, May 24, 2024

Review: Mother of Michael Jackson Accuser Recalls in Documentary: “I danced when I heard that he died! I was so happy he died!”


This is the toughest review I’ve ever had to write. What do we make of Dan Reed’s four hour, two part documentary “Leaving Neverland”? After covering Michael Jackson for almost 30 years, it’s not easy to approach this material.

The first reason is, obviously, that I thought we were done with all this. Wade Robson, his mother and sister all testified for Michael in his 2005 trial. They were on his side. Jimmy Safechuck had just disappeared into the void of Neverland kids who grew up and went away. Safechuck, from the 80s, hadn’t figured in the 2005 trial, didn’t say a word after Michael died, so that was that.

When each of them filed lawsuits, I was surprised. Michael was long dead. It seemed like a last minute cash grab. Then the court wouldn’t hear the cases. That was it.

Then came the news that they’d made this documentary. The Michael Jackson fans, so devoted still, are enraged. They’ve examined all of Robson and Safechuck’s claims down to the commas. If one interview varies from another, we hear about it. Robson seems particularly egregious since he wanted to a show business career. Michael’s estate says it turned him down for a job at a time when Robson needed money. Wasn’t that his reason for creating this maelstrom?

Now that I’ve watched the entire movie twice, I have some things to say. First, the opening two hours are devastatingly graphic. There’s one particular section midway through where you’ll need a drink, a Xanax, something. You should DVR the whole thing because at one point your mind will disconnect from the two men are describing.

Second, whether their claims are true or not, I am very sorry for the effect this will have on Prince, Paris, and Bigi, Michael’s children. They don’t deserve this. This isn’t Michael’s legacy. I hope they will just ignore the whole thing, as much as they can.

“Leaving Neverland” is about Wade and Jimmy, but it’s also about their parents. That’s what’s interesting here. Their mothers, who are a big part of the story, were only re-actors in their own life stories. They never once stopped to think about what it meant to hand their children over to Michael Jackson.

Joy Robson, who testified for Michael at the 2005 trial, blew up her own life. She took her two smallest children, left her husband, family, Australia, and moved to L.A. to be with Michael Jackson. Spoiler alert: she destroyed her husband, who eventually committed suicide. It’s quite unbelievable. Director Reed is unsparing about her, by the way. Her tragedy unfolds in the second half, and you must watch it.

Stephanie Safechuck is another matter. She resembles Joan Allen. She’s attractive, well spoken, smart. But she accepted a house– a house, a whole house– from Michael Jackson. And other gifts. She’s reasoned and sensible now. But she was also taken in. (I’m not sure if she’s still living in that house, or flipped it.) When her son finally confesses his “love affair” with Michael (same was Wade, they describe their sexual relationships that way with the King of Pop), Stephanie Safechuck, it makes sense to her.

When Michael dies, Mrs. Safechuck says: “I danced when I heard that he died. I was laying in bed, the news came on and I was, Oh thank god he can’t hurt any more children. I was so happy he died!”

Really, I believe her, but that house, that’s an issue.

Some other things: first, there is kind of a defense of Michael included in the second half. This is in the form of Michael’s defense lawyer, Tom Mesereau, who reminds us that Wade was put on the stand and examined by prosecutor Ron Zonen quite thoroughly. I was there, I watched Wade, his mother, and sister Chanelle (who’s in the movie). Personally, I keep thinking, they had their chance. But sister and mom were going on Wade’s word for years until 2013. Wade, if he’s telling the truth, lied to them his whole life.

Second: there’s little context here about other families and little boys. Michael’s history was befriending children, buying off the parents, sometimes separating mothers from fathers. There’s a long list of boys, and gifts to mollify the parents. You can make case for this, easily. Each story may have a mitigating experience, but there is an undeniable commonality. Reed only gets into this as he lets Jimmy and Wade and their mothers observe the new “class” coming in and see themselves being replaced.

One can argue that a lot of this material was available to Wade and to Jimmy if they wanted to fabricate it. They could have drawn on Victor Guitierrez’s book, which Michael stopped in court and received a judgment for $2.7 million (still uncollected). They had Shmuley Boteach’s tape transcripts, plus a book by scorned late publicist Bob Jones. Both Wade and Jimmy are rather unemotional in their confessions. Could they have constructed them these sources? Possible.

The Sunday night episode is the most graphic. Each boy relates specific sexual moments. One Michael defender warned me that these revelations, without corroboration or any counterbalance, are dramatic “gimmick.” It works! When James (aka Jimmy) shows off his “wedding ring” Michael gave him, studded with diamonds, you feel his pain. “I don’t like to look at the jewelry,” he says. No kidding. But the rings, the faxes, and other physical evidence will leave you re-examining this story.

Can we still like Michael Jackson’s music? Yes. I always say, if we’d known Picasso in real time, we wouldn’t have liked him at all. Or any artist. This is a compartmentalized brain of an artist. Artists don’t take a civics test. We’re not going to boycott Michael’s music. But he died in severe pain. No one we’ve ever heard of had a doctor administer Propofol, a dangerous anesthetic, night after night. Even though Dr. Murray was stupid and greedy, Michael was paying him for his services. We have to remember that. What kind of pain was he in? That’s for another documentary.

Plus: this is not the end. I reached out a couple of weeks ago to Evvy Tavasci, Michael’s assistant keeper of secrets for decades. I thought she could help clarify things. She could have easily defended Michael and debunked the whole story. She hung up on me instead. There are others. They may speak up in time.

So I say this to the Michael Jackson fans, the ones who came to Santa Maria, who write to me, who are so active and devoted online. There are a lot of moving parts here. You can choose not accept this movie. But for fours, watch and listen.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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