Archive | March, 2019

Leaving Neverland – Review

16 Mar

This month a new film premiered on HBO/C4 that presented old accusations against Michael Jackson in a new context. Wade Robson and James Safechuck, discredited former friends of MJ’s, have rehashed old, lurid accusations but presented no evidence or corroboration. They first made their claims – that Jackson persistently groomed and molested them over a period of years – in 2013/14 (Safechuck only approached Robson’s lawyer months later after hearing about the case on TV), when they tried to sue the Michael Jackson estate for 1.5 billion dollars. Now, following the wave of revelations about R. Kelly, Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and many, many others, these claims are being brought back to the surface in the form of a TV documentary and the public are suddenly more predisposed to give them credence. ‘Believe the victims’ is fast replacing ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as the maxim of choice when it comes to cases like this. However that is almost certainly an unhelpful approach. What is really needed is clarity, caution and context. We shouldn’t dismiss the allegations out of hand or shut them down, but we should hold them up to intelligent, critical scrutiny. After all, there is a lot at stake for everyone involved.

Leaving Neverland fails to do the above at every turn. It presents shocking accusations but fails to interrogate them. Only Safechuck, Robson and their families appear in this four hour film, where these trained performers, and Robson in particular (self proclaimed ‘master of deception’), have ample time to emotionally manipulate their audience. We get close ups of strained faces, telling stories that have been rehearsed and researched over years (incidentally, these stories have changed – or ‘evolved’ as Robson puts it – multiple times in that period). Sweeping orchestral music plays underneath evocative shots of Los Angeles. Heavily edited footage of Jackson is cut out of context and shown alongside the men’s testimonies to present him in the worst possible light. If you aren’t savvy to the techniques being used by the director, it is easy to get swept up in it all.

This is frustrating for people who have, for years, been studying Robson and Safechuck’s very serious allegations. In reality, what they have to say isn’t half as persuasive once you study their motives, personal characteristics and other important contextual factors. But the other side of the story isn’t really explored in ‘Leaving Neverland’, other than providing a couple of Jackson’s on screen rebuttals that weren’t even rebuttals to this particular case. Leaving Neverland is a openly one sided, unfair portrayal that we have every reason to contest. As a journalistic enterprise it falls way short of the standards we would expect. As a film it’s overlong, indulgent and exhausting. As a piece of propaganda however, it’s more successful, to the extent that it’s seemingly convinced a lot of critics and viewers. Nonetheless there are, even in people who have no prior knowledge of the accusations, reasonable suspicions. Most of the people I have spoken to who have seen the film have come away either mildly put out and conflicted, or totally disbelieving of what is being alleged. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of very few people IRL who have been swayed by what they’ve seen and heard in the film.

At the heart of this movie are two conflicting accounts. That of the accusers, and that of Jackson. Ultimately I think, and in the absence of conclusive evidence either way, it’s a question of who to believe. Having studied Jackson’s life and work at some length for the past two decades (I completed my dissertation on the subject at university and am currently teaching classes on his music videos) I came to the film knowing some important information. I knew, for example, that Jackson was tried in 2005, and found innocent by a strong willed jury comprised mainly of white, conservative mothers who in their closing statement asked the record to state that they came to the verdict ‘confidently’. Although like any lengthy court case, it was a complex affair, even a quick close reading of the court documents and countless testimonies provided will reveal why. In a trial expected to last up to a year, they’d wrapped things up convincingly in under five months. To be clear, this wasn’t an example of a rich celebrity buying justice – Tom Messerou, MJ’s talented lawyer, was undoubtedly persuasive but he has a history of working in impoverished black neighbourhoods and Michael was his first real celebrity client. He battled a sea of media bias and public disapproval. If anything a jury would have been predisposed to disbelieve Jackson. No, he was acquitted because the evidence showed he was innocent.

Prior to this trial, more accusations had been made by a boy named Jordy Chandler. Again, a whole book could be written on these allegations but, to summarise, they also didn’t stand up to close scrutiny. In this instance, Jackson (or more precisely, his insurers) settled the civil case for millions of dollars – an act that he came to regret. To the general public a settlement appeared to be as good as a confession of guilt. It wasn’t as straightforward as that though. Of course, you can’t just pay off accusations of child abuse and so the settlement didn’t effect the criminal case, which was resolved shortly afterwards (Jackson wasn’t even indicted by the two Grand juries that looked in to the case). For the record, Jackson wanted to fight and clear his name but simply wasn’t allowed. The settlement was explicitly NOT an admission of guilt.

Prior to the current cases, these are the only two serious claims that have been made against Jackson. Yes, gossip and salacious tabloid stories aside, only two of the countless children in Jackson’s life have ever made accusations. In fact dozens and dozens have defended him and continue to do so. In addition to this, the FBI assisted with investigations involving Jackson dating a twelve year span. Over 300 pages of public record documents are available that consistently support Jackson’s innocence. Some of these documents record details of the house raids that took place in the early 00’s. in 2004, for example, 86 officers, in one of the largest (if not the absolute largest) police raids in Californian state history, searched Neverland and Havenhurst, Jackson’s family home, where they examined the content of several computers, video libraries and a collection of 20,000 art books. The precise details of what they found are all detailed at length on other websites, but needless to say NOTHING of interest was found. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. This word appears time and time again in the FBI documents.

Of particular importance, Jackson’s internet search history, dating back to 1998 revealed that he had never searched for inappropriate material. It did show a healthy interest in heterosexual, legal pornography (a list of the websites he visited can be found elsewhere) but in all that time he never once attempted to seek out child pornography. I’m not an expert, but that strikes me as atypical behaviour for an alleged pedophile.

It was with this knowledge, yet trying to keep an open mind, that I started to explore the claims being made by Wade Robson and James Safechuck.

Wade Robson is the more suspect of the two accusers. Watching him talk in interviews, You get a sense of the tenacity and showmanship that allowed him to flourish in the Entertainment industry. Some important context, that is only hinted at in the film, is that prior to appearing in the documentary, Robson attempted to sue the estate (in a civil, rather than criminal, case) for 1.5 Billion rollers. In one hearing, the judge said he’d lied so many times under oath that ‘no rational juror’ could believe him. Being selective with the truth is something that colleges and ex-girlfriends also noticed over the years. For a man who, according to the film, lacked confidence, he made the surprisingly bold move of having an affair with Britney Spears, breaking up her relationship with Justin Timberlake – hardly the action of a shy wall flower. Of course that doesn’t have a particular bearing on these allegations, but it does at least suggest that he’s capable of deception.

Before Robson’s lawsuit was kicked out of court (an appeal is currently ongoing, pouring scorn on to the idea that Robson has ‘no financial motive’) he shopped around a book that no publisher picked up. He’s also sold his stories for TV and magazines. Several high profile celebrities have gone on record to state they have been offered hundreds of thousands to be critical of Jackson on camera. One can only imagine the numbers Robson and Safechuck are being offered now, by a media industry that is estimated to have lost billions when Jackson was acquitted in 2005.

At the turn of the decade, Robson suffered a mental breakdown, which in Robson’s own words, was a result of work stress and family pressure. This wasn’t his first breakdown, or his first time in therapy, but it was the first time he brought up the allegations against Michael Jackson – allegations that he had always strenuously denied, as a grown man, even in a court of law, under oath, in front of a hard faced jury and one of the most infamous prosecutors in America. So what had changed?

In 2012 Robson put himself forward for a high profile role as choreographer for Michael’s cirque de solie show, and was, to a small extent, strung along before being unceremoniously rejected in favour of a more experienced dancer. Robson no doubt felt hurt and disappointed – by his own account, he had seen the gig as a dream job and the fulfilment of a prophecy Michael had given him as a child. This rejection also added to the considerable financial burden of maintaining a Hollywood lifestyle he had become accustomed to. He sold most of his MJ memorabilia for thousands of dollars shortly after this (a fact he tried to hide from public record) but that was only a short term solution. Robson was categorised by one psychologist at this time as being OCD, with a family history of depression and suicidal tendencies, and one can only guess at what went through his head at this trying time in his life.

The other accuser, James Safechuck, was not involved in the 2005 trial – a judge wouldn’t allow testimony from him for technical reasons, so he was never approached by Jackson’s legal team (despite what he has since said to the contrary). Less is known about Safechuck, who has largely avoided publicity since the 90s, but there are a few similarities between him and Robson. Both have histories of mental health issues, both have had financial problems in the recent past and both felt hurt and rejected when they lost contact with the King of Pop. More importantly, both had uneasy relationships with their pushy stage mothers and distant fathers who they felt had used them in a pursuit of fame and fortune. Whether the accusations against Jackson are true or false, it is still shocking to think that a mother would allow their child to share a room with a grown man, under any circumstances. It’s perhaps telling that the only point in the documentary when the accusers appear thoroughly upset and angry is when they are discussing the relationships with their mothers.

Fully unknotting the truth is literally an impossible job, due to the fact that only two people will ever really know what happened in private. When it comes to Michael Jackson in general, what is fact and what is myth often appears to be a tangled web, that in his life was complicated by the man himself (it was he, for example, who orchestrated the ‘elephant man’s bones’ and ‘sleeps in an oxygen chamber’ myths). Famously, Jackson publicly denied having plastic surgery, whilst privately acknowledging the true extent of it. He also lied as a matter of habit when it came to interactions with the press, business associates and even his family. You can understand the thought – could this be just another lie? But in truth, those kind of wild tabloid stories about his surgery, shopping habits and personal relationships were exaggerations of the press that were actually encouraged – initially at least – by Michael himself. Throughout the 80’s, he actively sought the attention of the press and found it funny when they would print these made up stories. But there was nothing funny about the stories they would eventually start printing. ‘Jacko’s abused 24 kids’, ‘yes we had sex’ (actual front page headlines). Rather than back down, Jackson stubbornly doubled down and continued to defend, whilst maintaining, his friendships with children until the 2005 trial that is, after which he stopped spending time with children all together.

Of course we have to concede that Jackson undoubtedly asked to be held to a different standard than we would use on, say, an old old man who lives next door. If that man admitted to having sleepovers and parties with children we would rightly be alarmed and I don’t think any sensible fan would deny that Michael Jackson was more than a little unusual in this sense. Different. On another plain. And yet MJ’s circumstances were so unique, his psychological make up so complex, that in a sense he was different to the rest of us. Who else truly had a childhood like his? And therefore who are we to judge him by other people’s standards? Jackson said he liked children because they didn’t judge or condem him, they spoke to him without prejudice. And he, in return, wanted to use his experience and unique position to help children around the world. Based on his countless actions (such as donating all profits from world tours to charities and visiting hospitals in every city he visited) I believe we can take him at his word. Artistically his particular talents put him in the lineage of Michelangelo, Mozart, William Blake, Van Gough – other troubled, misunderstood visionaries who weren’t so much ahead of their time as in a different time and space altogether. Simply, he wasn’t like the rest of us. We can’t hope to understand what went on inside his mind.

Which is not to let him off the hook, simply because of his greatness. Great artists can be great sociopaths as well – history has proven that time and time again. But those close to Jackson, and even those who met him briefly, attest to the fact that he was a truly kind, loving individual. Of course he was no saint – fans who propagate this idea do him a dissservice – he WAS human after all, and he could be immature, impulsive, shortsighted and ruthless even with close friends and loved ones. But speak to people who knew him, who really knew him, and we get a picture of a devoted father and generous philanthropist. NOT a monster.

These allegations also have to be considered in a historical context where black entertainers have traditionally been undermined, their significance diminished, by journalists, authorities and – at times – the industry itself. Over the years this prejudice has revealed itself in both obvious and subtle ways. Whether it was Jarvis Cocker arrogantly pandering to his largely white, middle class audience by interrupting the only black artist invited on stage to perform at the 1996 Brit awards or MTV refusing to play his music videos in the early 80s – Michael Jackson has always faced scrutiny and barriers that you have to feel wouldn’t have been there for, say, David Bowie (who, as a matter of public record took the virginity of a thirteen year old at the height of his fame and went through a facist phase) or Jimmy Page (who dated an underage groupie quite publicly in the early 70s). This racial bias reveals itself in newspaper coverage that describes him as ‘once black’ and TV productions that still hire white men to play his part or the false allegations that he used sperm donners because he wanted white children. We can’t underestimate the role Race plays in the media’s all too ready inclination to throw this African American Icon under the bus.

Of course none of us will ever know the truth conclusively. That is an uncomfortable, frustrating fact for fans. And any objective, sensible person must have a tiny whisper of doubt in their mind at this point – we can’t ignore the fact that a handful of accusations (however incredulous) have now been made against him – even if that whisper is overwhelmed by confidence in Jackson’s innocence. But while there is no doubt that Michael Jackson exhibited very unusual behaviour, the fact it was unusual does not automatically mean it was criminal. Just because you don’t understand his motives, does not mean those motives were necessarily cynical. And even if you believe that it is unlikely his intentions were pure, well, what’s more unlikely than Jackson’s whole life and career? The moonwalk? ‘I Want You Back’? Jackson built an artistic legacy on being unique, and his private life was another reflection of that individuality. He defied the odds time and time again. Everybody believed he bleached his skin, and guess what, his autopsy proved that he suffered from the rare skin condition Vitiligo. Unlikely but true. Everyone said ‘Thriller’ would flop. It’s the biggest selling album of all time. Unlikely, but true.

In ‘Living With Michael Jackson’, the infamous Martin Bashir documentary, when MJ talked about children, I believe I saw sincerity and love in his eyes, not perversion and evil. And if it’s a question of believing him, the man I grew up admiring, or Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, then I know where I put my faith. Does this make me naive? To me, naive is taking two proven perjurers at their word when their stories contradict countless other testimonies. Naive is not exploring all the evidence. Naive is listening to Dan Reid instead of the FBI. Naive is ignoring a 1.5 Billion dollar motivation. Naive is dismissing the verdict of the 2005 jury. Putting your belief in Michael Jackson’s innocence is NOT naive, it’s the more logical position to take.

Michael Jackson Wearing A Mickey Mouse T-Shirt

Busted ‘Half Way There’ – Review

16 Mar

Busted released their debut album on to a world that was between guitar trends. Nu Metal was fading out of popularity, while the garage rock revolution spearheaded by The Strokes hadn’t yet made its way in to the mainstream. Culture at large was saturated by a slick, commercialised pop that veered between the bad and the beautiful. Busted arrived to bridge the gap; a trio of enthusiastic teenagers who took the energy and silliness of Pop Punk and imbued it with a youthful poptimism that would appeal to the masses. Initially there was a lot to find distatestful; they appeared on top of the pops to perform ‘What I Go to School For’ with school uniforms hanging out and their instruments not even plugged in. But by the time they released their second album, 2003’s ‘A Present For Everyone’, it was clear that the band deserved to be taken seriously. They could really play their instruments, they did write their own material, and (dodgy American accents aside) they had forged an identity of their own; bratty, brash and excitable. Unfortunately, the whiff of teen girl fandom excluded the more serious music press and Busted developed an undeserved reputation as a throwaway boy band. It was enough to convince even Busted’s own, young and impressionable guitarist, Charlie Simpson, that he needed to leave the band in order to forge a more serious career as an alternative musician.

By the time Busted reunited in 2015, these boundaries between genres, and that snarky disregard for pop music, had disappeared. Young pop acts today don’t experience the same condescending dismissals that Busted had to endure. And looking back it’s easy to see how important the group may have actually been. Their string of catchy top 5 singles attuned ears to the sound of guitars, and made real instruments palatable for a big audience once again. You can draw a direct line between Busted’s popularity and the rise of acts like Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol and Arctic Monkeys a couple of years later.

It was therefore surprising that when the band reformed, they initially appeared to have no interest in returning to their signature sound. ‘Night Driver’ was an unexpectedly steely, synth pop project that, ironically considering why the band dissolved in the first place, emphasised the pop elements whilst downplaying guitars and live drums. It was a good album but it slotted a little too neatly in to the 80’s inspired, retro landscape alongside the likes of Taylor Swift, Chrvches and Carly Rae Jepson. Busted, once great disrupters, politely blended in to the background. Perhaps they were weary about setting foot in the past again after the disappointing failure of ‘Mcbusted’, the supergroup featuring members of Busted and Mcfly, that unsuccessfully sought to update Busted’s original pop punk sound.

Loud noises have been made about ‘Half Way There’ being a return to The original template – and it is – though sonically and musically it’s far more ambitious. In fact, it is the best out and out, big tent Rock album I’ve heard for a long, long time. It helps having legendary producer Gil Norton behind the boards and the ferociously talented Cobus Potenger on the drum kit. It sounds incredible – beefy drum fills, layered harmonies, heavy guitars and bright bass lines. If you’re only memories of Busted are of a slick, manufactured pop group the. You’re going to be very surprised.

Nostalgia dictates the musical flow, and also serves as the album’s chief subject. Opener and lead single ‘Nineties’ sets the tone, with a chunky throwback riff, power pop chords and lyrics that reference Mackauly Culkin, MJ and the Goonies. These are the same type of pop culture references that could be found on their 2002 debut, and also littered the juvenile ‘Mcbusted’ record in 2014. It works here where ‘Mcbusted’ didn’t mainly because of the context. These are songs about being hopelessly reminiscent, and at points they question that reverence for the past. The record has a thoughtful tone that bypasses nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, offering something more contemplative and interesting instead. At one point they spell it out as a question – ‘am I still in love, or is it just nostalgia?’ This theme permeates several songs – explicitly on ‘Reunion’, ‘M.I.A’, ‘All My Friends’, ‘It Happens’ and, of course, ‘Nostalgia’ – and implicitly on ‘Shipwrecked in Atlantis’ which tips its hat to their own ‘Air Hostess’ and Blink 182’s ‘The Rock Show’.

Over ten songs Busted rarely lapse in to indulgence or repetition. In fact it’s such a joy to listen to that you could happily hear ‘Half Way There’ two or three times in a row without getting bored. But ultimately the album is a temporary solution to the question of how Busted can continue to develop and mature. This is not the kind of album you could easily make twice; to do so would undo a lot of the progressive gains ‘Half Way There’ makes. They’ve addressed their past conclusively, and next time they will no doubt want to explore what the future has in store.