Just when you figured Michael Jackson's saga couldn't possibly get more bizarre, things got way crazier. This was a dude, remember, who had an amusement park in his backyard, showed up for court in his jammies, and looked as if he'd bleached his skin and replaced his nose with the nub of an elf. Now Dan Reed's lightning-rod documentary Leaving Neverland, a Sundance Film Festival sensation, has opened wounds many preferred to pretend were never inflicted in the first place.
HBO debuted the four-hour film in two installments on Sunday and Monday, much to the consternation — and litigation — of the Jackson estate. Cinematically, nothing comparable has ever happened. Films have chronicled the foibles and faux pas of pop stars, sure: Jerry Lee Lewis betrothed to his 13-year-old cousin; XXL Elvis devouring fried peanut butter sandwiches; John Lennon on that embarrassing bender with Harry Nilsson.
That's kids' stuff next to what the self-proclaimed "king of pop" was allegedly up to for decades in plain sight — serially targeting and sexually abusing little boys. And yet, while the more recent #MeToo movement brought down the likes of Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor and many others, Jackson — aside from being dead — is doing just fine.
Better than ever, in fact. Of the $4.2 billion the performer has generated, half of that has been earned since his 2009 demise, according to Forbes. Which is why this movie could set a precedent with its impact. The moment Louis C.K. was outed, for example, his shows were taken off the air. Rose was summarily fired by CBS and PBS. Keillor's daily "The Writer's Almanac" on public radio didn't live to see another day. And Woody Allen finally became so toxic that Amazon refused to release his latest film.
So we've seen "cancel culture" play out on TV, on the radio and in the multiplex. One of the key questions raised by Leaving Neverland is this: Why are people who don't condone pedophilia still cool with embracing Jackson's music?
Consider that the case most closely resembling Jackson's is Bill Cosby's. The once-beloved comedian targeted, drugged and sexually abused his victims. People don't watch his show, buy his albums or pack arenas to catch his act anymore. It's long been alleged that Jackson did virtually the same things to underage boys — and paid millions in hush money.
In Reed's documentary, Wade Robson and James Safechuck credibly maintain that he did. They go into great — and greatly disturbing — detail, recounting similar experiences they separately underwent with the singer when they were as young as 7.
Some fans are still in denial, but a tipping point has been reached. The culture can't look the other way any longer when the New York Times calls Reed's impeccably constructed film "an overdue reckoning." Or when Oprah Winfrey hosts an aftershow addressing the effects of and misconceptions about surviving abuse, as she did on Monday night. The issue of whether or not that abuse took place appears at long last to be settled.
The film doesn't go into it, but the existence of Leaving Neverland does raise another question. Jackson's estate has invested heavily in a musical showcasing his biggest hits. Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough is scheduled to open on Broadway next year. How will we know whether the public has had enough? If the show goes on — and if the audience shows up.