Americans are accustomed to talking about fame using the heady language of the cosmos: the celebrity as a celestial truth, situated above us; the superstar as a force in the firmament, all heat and light and gravitational demands. Jackson’s environmental form of fame—music that permeated people’s lives, iconography that saturated American culture—anticipated the intimate version of celebrity that is the default today. It is fitting, in that regard, that celebrity itself functions as a spectral character in Leaving Neverland. Jackson was acutely aware of the affordances of fame; he leveraged them, the documentary suggests—and, ultimately, he weaponized them. Joy Robson, Wade’s mother, recalls Jackson making a request of her; she recalls, as well, that when she refused it, he coolly informed her: “I always get what I want.”
Leaving Neverland suggests that, on some level, he was correct. Jackson was introduced to Safechuck and Robson because they were impersonating him—Safechuck in a Pepsi ad, and Robson as a Jackson-inspired dancer in Brisbane, Australia; the boys, and their families, were awed by him. And he led them to believe, Leaving Neverland argues, that his fame could be made transitive. He dangled the promise of celebrity—and of fruitful careers in a fickle industry—before them like bits of shimmering bait. In one way, Jackson’s insinuation into the boys’ lives was deeply personal, to the extent that both Stephanie Safechuck and Joy Robson came to think of him, they say in the film, as a surrogate son. He’d have dinner at the Safechucks’ house in Simi Valley, California, and hours-long phone calls with both the boys and their relatives. But these were the bonds of show-business families. Jackson told Safechuck, who became interested in directing, that he’d help make him the next Steven Spielberg, Safechuck says. According to Robson, Jackson promised him the ability to learn the art of choreography at, literally, his feet.
The boys, at first, couldn’t believe their good fortune, to orbit around such a force. “My idol and my mentor and my god,” Robson recalls thinking of Jackson.
The mingling of the social and the professional, of the artistic and, eventually—allegedly, horrifically—the sexual: The dynamics are similar to those described by the people who have spoken out against R. Kelly, and Ryan Adams, and so many others. “Here’s this person in front of me that I think is, like, the world,” Lizzette Martinez, one of the women who accused Kelly of physical and emotional abuse, recalls in Surviving R. Kelly. (Kelly denies the charges against him; Adams’s lawyer has denied the allegations against him, as well, denouncing some as “grousing by disgruntled individuals.”) Martinez is describing lines that blur, perniciously. Here is a culture that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, continues to embrace myths of meritocracy; and a man, rich and powerful—a person whose whims get alchemized via fame into collective truth—telling them that they, too, are anointed. Here is the King of Pop himself reportedly promising Safechuck and Robson that their unique talents would be seen and appreciated and remunerated and loved, just as his own had been. One of the simmering horrors of the story Leaving Neverland tells is that through his alleged manipulations of them, Jackson was promising the families a version of justice.