I just watched the premiere of the Lifetime biopic Searching For Neverland and am rushing this review out while the film is still fresh on my mind. First of all, I’ll just acknowledge that I know this review isn’t going to please everyone, as a goodly percentage of the fan base was already gunning for this film from the start. However, despite some reservations, I said I would give it a fair viewing before jumping the gun to condemn it. I am glad I approached it with an open mind.
Here is really the bottom line: One’s reaction to this film is inevitably going to be based on how one felt about its source material, the book Remember The Time by former bodyguards Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard. Fan reception of the book was every bit as polarizing as any MJ project that gets released. Some praised it as a positive account of Michael’s final two years, revealing his struggles to provide a normal life for his three children despite mounting financial issues and the fallout from the molestation trial. Others condemned it as a violation of the very trust that Michael had placed in them.
I gave the book a fairly positive review back in 2014. I suppose given that I was one of those more charitably predisposed to the book, it may explain why I was willing to give a bit more benefit of the doubt to this movie. Let’s just say, if you were one of those who liked Remember The Time, you’ll probably love Searching For Neverland. The movie is pretty much simply a faithful, condensed version of the book. Which also means if you were one of those who disliked the book, it will no doubt color how you view this film. but if we put that aside and just view the film on its own merits, I found it refreshingly sweet and endearing in its portrayal of Michael as a family man struggling to keep together the most important thing to him-his life with his children. Sure, the eccentricities are there, but this was not one of those condescending portrayals intended to make him look one dimensional, naive, or mentally challenged. (Indeed, the few eccentricities will be familiar ground to anyone who routinely watches celebrity biopics; Michael does not come across as worsted for them ). For once, I think a genuine effort was made to portray Michael in all his human complexities, which is at least a big step in the right direction. The worst thing for me was Navi’s accent, which was frankly terrible, but overall, his performance was surprisingly nuanced. I think he did a good job, certainly exceeding my expectations. Despite what some reviewers have said, he is not a “dead ringer” for Michael Jackson, but his performance was believable and earnest enough to transcend those concerns (and, in fact, in some segments such as the Ebony photo shoot, he managed to perfectly capture the sizzling sex appeal of mature era Michael. Refreshingly, this was one of the few portrayals in which we actually are able to see what the fans always knew-that this was still a sizzizingly sexy and vibrant man, not the media portrayed “freak”-and, yes, we even get the scene of the “backseat date”). In another refreshing twist, this was the first film I have seen to successfully capture both the wonder and enchantment of Michael’s world view without the kind of patronizing condescension of so many projects. Despite the title, there is no pixie dust and no childishly naive pleas to everyone around him to “just believe.” What we do have is a realistic depiction of a man who once truly believed he could create magic, but has become worn down by a world that has turned its back on him. This is the story of a father who simply wants to find a home again, both for himself and his children.
By far the biggest complaint, one leveled at both the book and film (and an irony not lost on most reviewers) is that the film is still, nevertheless, an exploitation of a man whose last years were already the stuff of exploitation. Certainly there is something to be said for those arguments. However, perhaps it is my own journalistic background, but I tend to take a more tolerant and long sighted view of these things. Michael Jackson was a public figure, and even his personal life has become public property. The simple fact is that, while fans may know and cherish the knowledge of this Michael Jackson-the devoted father who strove to give his kids an ordinary life amidst the most extraordinary circumstances possible-it is still a side of him that many do not know, and haven’t bothered to know. If even a fraction of those bothered to tune in tonight, they will have met a very different man from the “Wacko Jacko” they thought they knew. And if the film at the very least accomplishes that goal, it is a worthy endeavor. I’m not going to necessarily subscribe to the school that insists every single project made about Michael Jackson is some sort of gross exploitation. Most are, but for every fifty films that are trash, there is always going to be at least one that deserves a fair chance to be seen and heard.
As I had mentioned back when I first reviewed Remember The Time, the one thing that really struck me the most was how they captured the claustrophobic sense of how small Michael’s world had become at that point, a world consisting mostly of himself, his kids, nanny Grace, and the bodyguards. There have only been two books that have successfully shed light on what those last two years were like for Michael and his kids, the other being Dr. Karen Moriarty’s Defending A King: His Life and Legacy (which also originated from Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard as sources). Not surprisingly, this is also a central narrative of the film, and even though it doesn’t dwell on any of the real controversies that created these circumstances, it successfully conveys the pathos of a wildly famous father, his life now tainted by scandal, who is struggling to keep life for his children as safe, secure, and filled with love as possible. The bottom line is that, as much as we may wish to respect Michael’s bid for privacy from a human perspective, his life-both public and private-has long since passed into the realm of public domain. We live in a celebrity dominated culture, where interest in the private lives of public figures continues to be a billion dollar industry, and where the proliferation of biographies, biopics and “tell all” memoirs are a permanent fixture of our culture. For better or worse, future journalists, historians, bloggers, scholars and, yes, filmmakers, will be telling his story. In this case, at least some genuine and heartfelt effort was made to get it right, even if they may have failed on one or two minor fronts.
Of course, this was not so much Michael’s story as it is Bill Whitfield’s (and to a lesser extent, Javon Beard’s). Like most celebrity memoirs told from the perspective of another party (be it friend, former employee, lover, etc) we already understand that it is going to be filtered through the lenses of that individual’s perception. That is the nature of memoir, for better or worse. In Michael’s case, almost everyone who ever came into contact with him-for all of five minutes-has claimed at some point to have been his closest confidante. Whitfield and Beard are no exceptions. However, as a narrative frame device, it holds the film together well, and Chad Coleman (familiar to Walking Dead fans as Tyrese) gives a compelling performance as Whitfield, a man torn between his obligations to his own family and the surrogate family he has come to love.
There are some controversial aspects, however, although it’s not anything that anyone already familiar with the book won’t know. The worst, and I suppose the one still most difficult to grapple with, is when we see Michael obliviously piling a shopping cart with Christmas gifts for his own kids while supposedly knowing that the body guards had not been paid in months and were not even able to buy gifts for their own kids. But even here, it is not so much an attempt to portray Michael as selfish or disconnected from reality; instead, it is further evidence of just how little control Michael had by that point over his own finances, and indeed even his own life. (As in the book, Raymone Bain is quite villified). Scenes like this are not intended so much to belittle as to humanize, and I liked that the film seemed at least capable of walking that tightrope without tripping to the extremes of either condescension on the one hand, or mindless sychophantism on the other. In other words, Michael is allowed something in this film that he’s very rarely been allowed to have in any film portrayal up to this point, with the possible exception of An American Dream over twenty-five years ago: His humanity. It won’t please everyone, but it is what it is. And it did not detract in the least from the endearing sympathy already built for the character (if we keep in mind this is as much a story with a narrative as a depiction of a real life). If I had not already been in love with Michael Jackson before I watched this film, I certainly would have been afterward, and I think that is the power it has (and again, a huge credit for this must go to Navi’s affecting performance; terrible accent or not, he did manage to capture Michael’s essence without resorting to cloy sentimentality or childish caricature). I also appreciated that the film actually had a sense of humor. It enabled viewers to see a side of Michael rarely glimpsed in these types of films, as someone who could be a bit self deprecating and loved practical jokes. The humor here is endearing, as it was in real life; not in a way that simply makes him look foolish or immature.
This is still a long way from being the perfect MJ biopic (I’m not even convinced such a thing is ever going to be possible) but, as with An American Dream, it is a satisfying recount of one particular chapter in his life, and for bringing that story full circle, a fairly decent companion piece to that film. (This may not be surprising, considering Suzanne de Passe was the force behind both). Understandably, it still leaves gaping holes in the story, even with its two and a half hours’ running time. As some reviews have already pointed out, Conrad Murray becomes little more than a side player, and the insinuation (just as with so many projects both better and worse than this one) is that Michael’s death was more about the bigger picture: The intense pressures of facing the This Is It shows, in which succumbing to Murray’s “treatments” merely becomes symptomatic of a much bigger problem: An inability to cope with the pressure squeezing him from all sides. As usual, this will most likely leave viewers to merely surmise, again, that Michael was indeed a victim, but perhaps more than anything, a victim of his own inability to cope. This isn’t so much a critique of the film as of the source material (even in the book, Whitfield and Beard were irritatingly soft on Murray). However, as far as these things go, it isn’t a fatal flaw of the film. Most viewers are intelligent enough to know that any movie can only cover so much ground, and that frankly, it isn’t really this film’s purpose to faithfully recount the events of those final two months of Michael’s life, in which Whitfield and Beard were no longer actively involved. Indeed, their story with Michael ends when Michael leaves for Los Angeles to begin rehearsals for This Is It. At any rate, that is another story perhaps beyond the present film’s scope. The events that transpired beyond those cloistered two years of Michael’s life spent in Vegas are certainly well documented enough for anyone who really wants to research further, and this is not a documentary.
For those who chose to condemn this movie out of hand, simply on principle, that is their right but in my honest opinion I think this was as good as a film of this caliber could be, given its limitations (low budget, no access to Michael’s music) and the generally low expectations most fans have come to expect from any movie made about Jackson’s life. Those trepidations don’t come lightly; they have been earned as per my previous post. I didn’t go into this one with high expectations, but within the first ten minutes, I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to be watching with a reviewer’s judgmental eye, and was simply caught up in a compelling story of an eccentric but beautiful dad struggling to keep together his beautiful family. Of course, it was a bit cheesy in places; this was a Lifetime biopic, after all, not an Oscar contender. But as these films go, it’s definitely a cut above some of the other recent Lifetime biopics, and as far as movies about Michael Jackson, it’s definitely a step beyond the usual drivel that we’ve been subjected to.
All in all, not perfect but certainly a very sweet and affecting film. Also, the follow up documentary that Lifetime is broadcasting, Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Icon, is excellent. I highly urge everyone to check it out. (For those still convinced they won’t be able to stomach the movie, at the very least fast forward to The Ultimate Icon-it’s well worth it!).
I can honestly say, however, that Searching For Neverland has at least redeemed my hope that a decent MJ biopic can still be made. All it takes is a little heart and respect for who the man was. Unfortunately, it will still be found lacking in some regards. Viewers still will not come away with any enlightened view of Jackson’s philanthropy or work as a humanitarian. And they won’t learn anything new about Michael Jackson, the artist (however, as mentioned, the follow-up documentary The Ultimate Icon pretty much covers that ground). What we’re left with is, quite simply, a poignant and tender tale of a father’s love. But maybe that is all it really needs to be.
Now if we can just work on Navi’s accent (lol) and if the estate would loosen the purse strings on Michael’s music, we just might finally get ourselves a halfway decent MJ biopic.