Revisiting Louis Theroux’s brilliant Michael Jackson documentary in the wake of Leaving Neverland

Theroux’s 2003 gonzo-doc Louis, Martin & Michael should be viewed in a new light in the wake of the latest child abuse allegations.

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Louis Theroux with Uri Geller in Louis, Martin & Michael (2003)

Cultural icons are falling with increasing frequency. The explosive power of the #MeToo movement, and the willingness of sexual abuse victims to come forward in greater numbers than ever before, has seen the likes of R Kelly, Kevin Spacey and Bill Cosby fall from grace in remarkable fashion. Once venerated in their particular fields of entertainment, the reputations of such men now lie in utter ruins.

With each new case, and each new fallen icon, the sense of shock reverberates through the public consciousness, destroying our faith in people and realities we once held to be sacrosanct. Nowhere is this more the case than with Michael Jackson – arguably the biggest cultural icon of the twentieth century – and the allegations of child sexual abuse featured in new documentary Leaving Neverland.

Yes, such allegations have been around for a long time, and Jackson stood trial and was acquitted on child sex charges in 2005. But the testimony in the film of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who say Jackson abused them when they were children, feels like a tipping point. To put it another way, it feels as though the Jackson icon has finally and irrevocably been brought low, with all the far-reaching cultural implications this brings.

These implications got me thinking about another documentary dating back to 2003, by the BBC’s Louis Theroux. Titled Louis, Martin & Michael, the film is a fascinating snapshot from the final decade of Jackson’s life, when the star’s ‘eccentric’ behaviour was clearly getting out of control. Looking at it now, you can identify some of the abusive traits and behaviours exposed by Leaving Neverland, but the film is more about the bizarre cult of celebrity that defined the megastar, and the way the world perceived him back then.

That’s despite Jackson not actually featuring in the documentary at any point. The whole premise of Theroux’s film is to show his fruitless attempts to secure an interview with Jackson, from badgering the pop star’s UK-based confidant Uri Geller, to travelling to Las Vegas where he becomes involved with the singer’s murky entourage. The ‘Martin’ from the film’s title is journalist Martin Bashir, who at that time, and with Geller’s help, had just secured an interview with Jackson for ITV (much to Theroux’s chagrin).

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Louis Theroux interviews Michael Jackson’s father Joe Jackson

The now-infamous Bashir interview was a disaster for Jackson, in which he openly admitted to sleeping with young boys at his Neverland ranch. Theroux’s film documents this and a number of the scandals that were engulfing the artist at this point, including his decision to dangle his baby over a balcony overlooking fans in Berlin.

Although Theroux failed in his mission to get an interview with Jackson, the film is full of telling insights about the so-called King of Pop, which are all-the-more compelling when viewed alongside Leaving Neverland.

In an attempt to at least understand Jackson better, Theroux interviews a diverse mix of people with connections to the singer including Terry George, a British man who befriended Jackson as a celebrity-obsessed child, after managing to get access to his hotel room. George’s story is very familiar – namely that he was a precocious child who Jackson took a particular shine to following their first encounter, to the extent that Jackson would regularly phone the boy for chats.

During the interview Theroux raises an allegation that had previously been reported in the British press, that Jackson had masturbated during one of the phone conversations – to which George says “the majority of it’s true”. The grooming behaviour revealed here seems very similar to that described by Robson and Safechuck in Leaving Neverland.

Another revealing interview in Theroux’s film is with Jackson’s father Joe, who agrees to talk in return for a hasty exchange of cash organised by one of his entourage, and on condition that some of the small-time music acts he’s promoting in Las Vegas can appear in the film.

When Theroux finally has a proper sit-down with Joe in the early hours of the morning, we get an insight into the tension, fear and repression that ran through the Jackson family, as the father openly admits to having whipped Michael as a child with a switch and a belt, and bristles with homophobic disgust when Theroux asks whether he’d like to see the star settle down with “a girlfriend or boyfriend”.

The backdrop to these interviews is the legions of screaming fans who followed Michael wherever he went, just as Theroux does in his attempts to hunt down an interview. The collective fan mania directed at Jackson was unlike anything seen before or since, and it perhaps explains why Jackson felt he had the licence to have inappropriate relationships with young boys in view of the public. As Wade Robson’s mother Joy recounts in Leaving Neverland, Jackson once told her “I always get what I want”.

Just as Leaving Neverland features direct testimony about the exploitative and abusive behaviour of Michael Jackson, Theroux’s film provides a complex but important picture about the context in which such abuse was able to flourish. It’s an interesting companion piece to a devastating documentary.

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