Doc Corner: 'Leaving Neverland'
Tuesday, March 5, 2019 at 1:00PM
Glenn Dunks in Doc Corner, HBO, Leaving Neverland, Review, Surviving R Kelly, documentaries

By Glenn Dunks

Please note this review discusses topics that will be upsetting to some readers.

How long is too long for a film like Leaving Neverland? Not long enough, it would seem. Don’t get me wrong – watching Dan Reed’s four-hour document of the physical and psychological abuses heaped onto two underage boys in the 1990s by the most famous man in the world, Michael Jackson, is rough-going. It’s sickening, it’s confronting, and its hard to sit through. It’s also compelling and I, for one, believe them. --  I figure I should get that out of the way right at the top.

Reed does something great with with this material, which could so easily have been sensationalized or turned into cheap, ghoulish true crime fodder. His approach is elegant, refined and simple and yet holds the weight that such a discussion deserves...

The director, no stranger to making documentaries about sex crimes, has for the most part simply allowed these two boys, now men with wives and children of their own, to sit and tell their story. They and their family members who chose to participate are filmed in simple set-ups in warm, comforting surroundings and are given the time and the patience to speak in ways that allow us to really get into their minds. Quite frankly, I could have listened to more. I would listen to as much as they want to say because the pain and the trauma they detail that was allowed to go on is powerful and deserves to be heard, whether you believed the accusations against Jackson before or not.

Michael Jackson’s crimes, albeit legally only alleged, are too numerous to name but include sexual molestation of children as young as seven years of age, forced penetration of teenagers, systemic grooming of underage boys and teenagers, psychological manipulation and blackmail. These are all laid out by Robson and Safechuck in such clear and precise detail that many will struggle to watch. But to do so is, I feel, extremely important. To fit their story into a tidier space just because this way makes us uncomfortable feels completely besides the point. The pain and trauma of their recollections are only heightened by the justification that they held on to for years up to and including Robson’s testifying on Jackson’s behalf in court not too long before his death in 2009.

There isn’t a moment of padding, which is extraordinary for a four-hour movie built almost exclusively around people sitting in chairs and talking. That is a testament to both the material and the reign that Reed allows his subjects, but also to editor Jules Cornell whose work here builds a real-time narrative out of the two parallel stories alongside the use of scant but all too effective use of archival video that shows just how in-plain-site Jackson’s predilections were. Drone footage of Los Angeles and Brisbane is a refreshing breath of fresh air yet never takes away from the impact of the words we’re listening to.

This need for the victims and survivors to simply be given the time and space to tell their stories is also the most powerful aspect of Surviving R Kelly, a more traditional series that aired earlier this year on America’s Lifetime network (I have only watched two of the episodes that were previewed for me upon its local release). That series allows for 360 minutes across six episodes, but while the stories are just as compelling and important, I was disappointed that directors Nigel Bellis and Astral Finnie chose such a shlock aesthetic that more closely resembles a Behind the Music expose. It cheapens the series, although it doesn’t diminish its subject matter that just as directly lays out the trail of abuse that R Kelly committed against numerous young black women. Their stories deserved better.

The discourse around both Leaving Neverland and Surviving R Kelly has already been quite vocal from both sides, with personal and now legal action swift in the latter. Despite its runtime, the Jackson doc doesn’t grapple with many of the issues that run adjacent to it. It does end with a literal burning of Jackson records and memorabilia by one of its two subjects so even though it doesn’t dive into the cultural issue of whether we should forever not listen to his music, I guess it’s easy to see it being heavily implied. But Leaving Neverland doesn’t need to go there. Dan Reed clearly wants nothing more than to just let Wade and Jimmy speak for themselves. It’s hard to deny their power. The rest is up to us to decide.

Release: Streaming on HBO.

Oscar chances: I don’t know if it will be eligible. HBO are known for going theatrical alongside television, but it’s two-parter status may mean it’s out of the running before they even attempt it. It's so hard to know these days with frequent rule changes. Even then, it’s going to be a lightning rod that even Oscar might balk at the prospect.

Article originally appeared on The Film Experience (
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