Why the New Michael Jackson Documentary Won't Have the Impact 'Surviving R. Kelly' Did

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Michael Jackson arrives at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse for the second day of the defense's case in his child molestation trial. May 6, 2005 in Santa Maria, California.  (Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

If anyone ever needed a reminder of the awesome power of documentaries, Surviving R. Kelly provided a particularly impactful one. Since the docuseries aired, Kelly has been dropped by RCA, denounced by former collaborators, become the focus of one investigation in Georgia, another into his studio in Chicago, seen his ex-manager served with an arrest warrant, and had his music banned by at least two radio stations. After years of dodged bullets, Surviving R. Kelly brought about a major shift in how the world views the R&B star.

A new documentary about Michael Jackson, titled Leaving Neverland, is hoping to prompt a similar change, by exploring the stories of two men who say Jackson sexually abused them. "Through gut-wrenching interviews with the now-adult men and their families," the film's press release states, "Leaving Neverland crafts a portrait of sustained exploitation and deception, documenting the power of celebrity that allowed a revered figure to infiltrate the lives of starstruck children and their parents."

The two-part, four-hour film by director Dan Reed, premiered at Sundance over the weekend and will air on HBO in the spring. Weeks ago, news that it even existed was greeted with strong condemnation by Jackson's estate, which said: "This is yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson."

Jackson's nephew Taj spoke out on Twitter:


Jackson supporters were also quick to respond. "I’m absolutely sick of it," says British fan, Charlotte Childs. "The man was found innocent! I didn’t blindly accept that; I did my research and read the court transcripts. There's a lot of stuff going on in the fan community right now—petitions and rebuttal videos are in the works."

A couple of them surfaced before the film did. One accused Leaving Neverland of defamation. Another—a movie trailer parody—called Jackson's prior accusers "blatant liars." Pressure was so great on Sundance that, weeks in advance, the festival was forced to release a statement to confirm it would not be removing the documentary from its lineup. It also provided an increased police presence at the first screening, in anticipation of protesters.

Jackson fans have a history of leaping to his defense fiercely and fast. And there are a lot of them. You'd be hard pressed to find a musician whose work is as universally loved as Michael Jackson's. His impact was so enormous, it's fairly difficult to find anyone between the ages of 25 and 75 who doesn't, in some way, have an emotional connection to his music. In the end, if the rumors about him are proven true—and some viewers at Leaving Neverland's premiere were definitely leaning in that direction—it will be a pop culture loss the likes of which we've never seen before.

Jackson cuts a more sympathetic figure than most famous men who've come under the #MeToo microscope, in part because he is no longer alive, and because, when he was, he was frequently viewed as a vulnerable victim of both press and circumstance. Two musicians I interviewed about Leaving Neverland before its release both separately used the phrase "easy target" in relation to Jackson and the accusations made against him.

And while Jackson and R. Kelly both suffered difficult, abusive childhoods, in adulthood, Jackson made sure we never stopped thinking about his. He cultivated an image of a man-child; isolated, sensitive and given neither the opportunity to reach adulthood on his own terms nor a chance to grow into a truly independent, free person.

The publication of his 1988 autobiography, Moon Walk, established an ever-present pain in Jackson's persona and subsequently left behind a residue of public guilt. If he hadn't spent his childhood over-worked and on tour, the story went, he wouldn't need an amusement park and a zoo at his house as an adult. The implication is that the fault of his eccentric behavior and habits lies, at least partially, with a public who adored him too much.

Some of the elements of Jackson's persona were specifically designed to elicit this response in fans. In a recent Vanity Fair story, journalist and longtime friend Lisa Robinson talks of Jackson's "two voices he could produce at will." One was the gentle squeak he used for public appearances, the other was, in Robinson's words "lower," "more 'normal'," and reserved for private conversations.

Interestingly, Robinson's story reflects exactly how the public most likes to think about Jackson. It focuses on a catalogue of interviews that she conducted with him between 1972 and 1989 (four years before the first child molestation trial). What happened in Jackson's life after those interviews is summed up in a single paragraph:

"Before the onstage crotch grabbing, before the disfiguring plastic surgeries, before the peculiar disguises, before the suspect marriages, before the mysteriously conceived children, before the rumored drug addictions and insomnia, and even before...the hospital stays, the alleged family estrangements, the profligate spending, the grotesque tchotchke hoarding, the over-the-top fantasyland ranch...and certainly way before the child-molestation accusations and trial, Michael Jackson was one of the most talented, adorable, enthusiastic, sweet, ebullient performers I’d ever interviewed."

That's the Michael Jackson the world most fondly, and often, remembers. Because for almost 20 years, he was simply one of the greatest talents the world had ever seen. When your great first impression lasts two decades, people are able to hold onto it, regardless of what comes later.

The result of that is that Michael Jackson has never really fallen out of favor. Just this month, fashion giant Louis Vuitton honored Jackson in a special runway show that attendees were invited to via bedazzled, single white gloves. One of January's most popular viral videos was that of UCLA gymnast, Katelyn Ohashi, performing an exhilarating routine soundtracked by Michael Jackson and his siblings. Thriller Live, an MJ musical, is now enjoying its "record-breaking" tenth year in the heart of London's theater district.

This is all despite the horrific claims that were made during the 2005 trial—sleepovers with children, Jackson giving them wine (which he called "Jesus Juice" and "Jesus Blood"), "triple-locked secret closets" and, most shocking of all, "an extensive collection of photos featuring naked teenage boys." The crowds outside the courthouse were unwavering in their dedication to Jackson at the time, and many of them remain so today.

"I look at it this way," Las Vegas fan, Chris King says. "Corey Feldman has been a pedophile exposer now for years. No mention of Michael. Macaulay Culkin has been out of the spotlight for 15 years and not a peep from him either. Going back to childhood, I never believed it."

Another lifelong fan, who asked to remain anonymous, acknowledged that she doesn't hold Jackson accountable in the same way she does other musicians. "I flip out that Drake is texting a 13-year-old girl, and I think R. Kelly is a monster, but I know I've also victim-shamed the kids that accused Michael. Which is crazy. When the first trial happened, I saw it as an attack on my idol. It happened at a time when public information was a lot more limited, so I essentially went on my gut and the verdict. It's much easier to go with the things that back up my faith in him, and believe this was about those kids needing money than it is to accept what I don't want to hear."


Just how many people will avoid Leaving Neverland for those same reasons is impossible to predict. But the response it received before the emergence of so much as a trailer, speaks volumes about our nation's relationship with both Michael Jackson, and, more generally, America's musical heroes. It's clear that, regardless of what comes out in the film, there are a great many people who will keep Michael Jackson firmly on his pedestal, whether he deserves it or not.