“Life is hard, right? I’ve been looking for something to shake me up a little bit, and give me a kind of a meaning, to believe in something… and this is it.”This Is It dancer
Every time is just as good.
This Is It starts backstage, interviewing dancers before their auditions. These auditions are for the principal dancers for what would’ve been Michael Jackson’s final tour: the This Is It concert residency in London.
I love Michael Jackson. I can see myself in each dancer’s face as they speak. Each snippet of each auditionee tells one universal story – what it’s like to idolise Michael Jackson.
How they’ve been fans since they were little. How he’s the first thing they listen to every morning; how he’s the reason they dance, the reason they go on. He’s the reason they flew all the way across the world to be here.
The opening credits end with the simple title card: “for the fans…”
Truer words have yet to be spoken. We spend the next 113 minutes right by MJ’s side, as he sings his songs, for the last time. Seeing him in the half-measures of rehearsals, through the lenses of low-grade cameras, it’s easy to feel intimately connected to MJ. He’s not just a beloved idol, but a dance-improvising, out-of-breath, 50-year-old perfectionist, dedicated to creating the perfect final performance for his fans.
He’s everything I love and remember, and I can press play whenever I need him.
That is why This Is It, the 2009 Michael Jackson concert film, was one of my favourite films.
“We felt like we knew him. He had been in our living rooms, in our ears every day. His posters like, I’d known him, I thought. For some reason it didn’t feels strange to let me, a seven-year-old, and my sister, a ten-year-old, sleep in this man’s bedroom.”Wade Robson, Leaving Neverland
10 years later, I watch the two-part HBO documentary Leaving Neverland.
There are no crying dancers, no awed intro into Michael, no build to a reveal.
He’s onscreen immediately. There, he’s just a man standing awkwardly in an advertisement photoshoot, with a young boy jumping excitedly in front of him as the camera flashes. Michael doesn’t draw the eye, nor does he seem in any way fantastic: it is all about the kid.
He’s a child actor who won the casting lottery and has been picked to star in a 1987 Pepsi commercial with the King of Pop himself.
Then the scene ends; we’re now in a plain room. Two men enter and sit down in homey armchairs: Wade Robson and James Safechuck. James was that little kid in the Pepsi ad. As he begins to speak, everything changes.
It’s not sensational; it does not beg me to believe. Leaving Neverland quietly sits me down and lets these two men tell me what happened. The extent of what Michael Jackson did to them. All the descriptions of grooming and sexual abuse. Between these intense interviews are long segments of sweeping aerial footage: LA, Brisbane, the Neverland Ranch. In pulling back to show these locations from afar, the camera constantly keeps its distance, capturing, somehow, the overwhelming magnitude of all that was kept secret for decades.
What all these revelations mean, not only for me, but for the world.
But then, these aren’t new revelations for the world. Not really. The world heard these claims before, in allegations and million dollar settlements. Leaving Neverland isn’t everyone’s first chance to let go of their idol; that came many years before.
We see newsreel footage crowds waiting outside the courthouse where Michael Jackson’s 2005 child molestation trial is being held. I understand why the crowds are there, handing out “Free Michael” shirts, and crying from joy when he was found not guilty.
I understand why someone might lash out against Leaving Neverland in defensive disbelief, because while I believe these two men, I feel it too: A rising panic that I am losing something fundamental.
Of all the actors stripped from our screens, comedians barred from our stages, stars persecuted for their problematic pasts in recent times, Michael Jackson is the first to give me pause.
An idol so completely representative of love, peace, and joy across countries, across cultures.
Who are these two men to take Michael Jackson away from me?
I’ve known Michael my whole life. He wouldn’t do this. Voices across articles and publications, across websites and comment sections, all seem to agree. It’s in the “why are they speaking up now?”, “they can’t prove this”, “they’re just doing it for money”. It’s in the conversation, the stubborn willingness to blast Billie Jean without apology.
Michael Jackson gave something beautiful to the world. His image, his moves, his songs; they transcend and celebrate in a way unlike anything that’s happened before or since.
But it’s more than that — it’s my memories, all tied up in him.
It’s the first time I danced until I couldn’t anymore, with Dad having to physically remove nine-year-old me from the dancefloor at a family wedding. It’s making sure I ate my dessert and restore blood sugar, as my relentless grooving had caused me to miss all the other courses. It’s Mum sharing the first record she ever bought – Off The Wall – and telling me how it taught her the value of money. How something as common as dollars could allow her to own something so priceless.
It’s ‘She’s Out Of My Life’ becoming my tear-jerking break up anthem years before the tear-jerking breakup.
I don’t want a world without those. It’s easy for some to take him off playlists and ban him from radio stations — they aren’t the ones having their most reliable access point to happiness cut off.
Leaving Neverland is one-sided. Like so many news stories, the focus is to expose the problematic idol, to supply the information, not to coach you through it. We fall into anger and resentment towards victims for bringing such idol-crushing crimes to light, because we see them as an attack on us, our past, our beloved media, which forms a part of us. It’s an attack on the person we think we know. And so, an idol must be two people: the person you think you know, and the person you never did.
But how can you separate the two?
Having an idol nowadays feels like having an ever-depreciating investment.
So we have to figure out what to do. A way ahead. A way that doesn’t turn the world against victims of abuse. A way that doesn’t let abusers continue to thrive. I believe these men, but I do not believe the media conversation should just be about who we believe. If the focus in the media is on who we believe, it continues to perpetuate the harmful acceptance that the legitimacy of abuse victims is up for debate, and that the act of allowing this debate is inherently more important than the damage such debating does to the people who come forward, and the majority who don’t.
Believing these two men didn’t help me reconcile myself with the loss. As the unmasking of idols continues happening across industries and across cultures, our responses only grow more frustrated and angry. It feels like an attack upon not just the idol, but on all the moments we built around them, the joy we associated with them. We need to harness this outrage, and supply an alternative to the immediate banning of the art that makes us happiest.
As an idol, Michael Jackson has had arguably the largest reach. Knowing this, I don’t think we can afford to let this moment be just another demoralising headline in this ongoing push to reframe our past.
This isn’t about separating the man from the art, because there is no man left. Just generations of positivity potentially tainted.
After all, we surely must have learned our lesson by now not to idolise anyone, because that would give them a perfect mask; an invitation to be anything underneath. Idols made us vulnerable. They had us inviting predators into our homes, and into our families. For some, just on posters and on televisions; for others, like Wade and James, in the flesh.
But our lives are short. And the way you make me feel is a rare feeling.
As much as we can reshape who we invest our hearts in, as much as we’ve learned not to trust like this again, we’ve already spent years with Michael. He was already in our hearts, our childhoods, our memories when this, the age of deconstructing beloved images, began.
To me it seems that there are few modern images as universally known and loved as that of Michael Jackson.
The film industry is the main industry that has been rocked by the recent need to readdress beloved images, as more and more of the people behind them are exposed as abusers. The film industry trades in images, not the people beneath them, so it can be very difficult for the public to see the need to forfeit the image because of the person it is attached to. The further back we go into the film archives with our modern standards, the more we are asked to discard.
And yet for every image that is re-examined and discarded, we must begin to address the personal loss for how it feels: a penalty you must pay for a crime you never committed. As the consuming public, we often blindly tie our own lives and happiness up with media, so far removed from the abusers and the unbalanced systems that allowed them to exist. And in this age of constant disillusionment, cinema’s scope for readdressing and re-categorising images surely holds the answer. While the emerging practice — to re-cast and reshoot to cut out problematic stars, and to write abusers out of stories and out of their jobs — is important for our future, it doesn’t soothe the loss of past idols, nor the loss of those touched by their images.
Cinema holds the answer.
Back to This Is It I go.
The credits on Leaving Neverland have barely started when I load the concert film up. I press play as if on autopilot.
I don’t know what answer I expect to find. Maybe it’s just like when This Is It first came out, only a few months after Michael Jackson had died. When we walked out of the cinema into a world with no more MJ, we bought new tickets and went straight back in.
Do I just want to keep my Michael alive and let the other Michael, the one who sexually abused Wade Robson and James Safechuck, stay dead?
No. I want to use what good Michael Jackson represented to bandage the bad. Somehow.
The music is about to start. I wonder which Michael is going to be standing onstage after the opening credits and suddenly point his finger, causing ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’ to play. The man I thought I knew, or the man I never did?
The last title card of the opening credits appears.
And therein lies answer.
“for the fans…”
For the fans who needed Michael Jackson. Whatever he got you through, whichever rough edge he smoothed down in your life, you needed him. You needed him enough to not believe the trial findings, the millions of dollars in settlements, the countless allegations that predated Leaving Neverland. For the fans who still need him enough to want to lash out at the documentary and accusations that can’t go ignored.
This is it, this is where you can go. This is where all the good that idolising Michael Jackson did can still be yours. This is where you can open a door to all the happy memories from your years spent sewing his music into your life. This is where you can find the comfort and joy of believing that a man who sings perfectly and dances perfectly could be just that: perfect.
This is it, the film that will help you say goodbye to the Michael Jackson you never knew, the Michael Jackson we have to accept abused Wade Robson, James Safechuck, and other young children. You have no claim to that Michael — after all, you never knew him.
But the other Michael — your Michael; the poster above your bed, the reason you dance, the song you danced at your wedding to, your lucky ‘Thriller’ shirt — here he is now. The middle of the stage. He points a finger. The music starts again, like it always will. Everything is okay.
This Is It and Leaving Neverland are companion pieces. Two films about two very different impressions of the same man: This Is It is about the man I thought I knew, and Leaving Neverland is about the man I never did. I had to lose one, but I can never lose the other.
This is it, the key to leaving Neverland and bringing the lost boys home, and finally being able to grow up, and separate the man from the magic.
Leaving Neverland and This is It are now respectively streaming on 10Play and Netflix Australia.
Matilda Dorman is a screenwriter, choreographer and filmmaker from the Northern Territory, based in Melbourne. She writes queer, noisy stories about people and voices that have been buried, and adores exploring Australia’s developing identity. She has written for the Melbourne Women in Film Festival, and studied at the Victorian College of the Arts.