Filming a biopic is fraught with difficulty. How can a writer and director accurately portray an international icon onscreen? Few Beatles films have adequately captured the complex personality of John Lennon, while Elvis Presley-themed movies have to walk a fine line between real life and caricature. In addition, are the screenwriters drawing from respected source material, or from authors with an axe to grind? These questions again surface while viewing the Lifetime movie Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland, set for release on DVD on October 10. While it presents a largely sympathetic portrait of the reclusive star’s last years, it still blurs the line between fact and fiction and never quite captures Jackson’s struggles during that period.
Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland is based on the book Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days by Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard with Tanner Colby. Whitfield and Beard served as Jackson’s bodyguards from 2006 until his death, and they present the singer as a devoted father, wanting to give his children everything yet still desiring them to have as normal a life as possible. His notoriety, however, prevented him from taking his children shopping or to see a film. Thus he largely isolated himself from the outside world, relying on staff such as nanny Grace Rwaramba. Due to mounting financial problems, Jackson reluctantly agreed to play what was originally 10 concerts in London (the promoter, AEG, allegedly increased the number to 50 shows against Jackson’s wishes). His dependence on prescription drugs ultimately overtook his life, and he passed away on June 25, 2009 from an overdose of the anesthetic propofol (administered by personal physician Conrad Murray, who served time for his role in the singer’s death).
Chad Coleman, best known for his roles on The Wire and The Walking Dead, largely narrates the film as Whitfield. The audience sees Jackson through his eyes, and Coleman admirably portrays Whitfield as fluctuating between awestruck fan, close friend, protector, and reluctant observer of Jackson’s wild spending sprees. Sam Adegoke, currently starring in CW’s Dynasty reboot, plays Beard as somewhat immature but loyal, a man who also transforms from avid fan to friend. The story begins in 2006, after Jackson and his kids have returned from a year in Bahrain. Noted Jackson impersonator Navi (who Jackson sometimes employed as a decoy to fool paparazzi) makes his acting debut in the film, and his inexperience occasionally shows. His British accent frequently creeps into his speech, but Navi does show promising skills in a scene involving Jackson flying into a rage. He and the bodyguards have taken the kids to a hotel pool; after being assured of complete privacy, Jackson suddenly spots a security camera in a corner of the room. Screaming and crying, Jackson rips the camera out of the wall as Whitfield and Beard rush to calm him. Crumpled on the floor and sobbing, Navi evokes the star’s intense fear of the public and the media. The bodyguards serve as parents as well as protectors in this scene, softly speaking to him and almost embracing Jackson.
Numerous scenes suggest that his manager (played by Holly Robinson Peete) and his family (namely his father and a particularly violent Randy Jackson) took advantage of the star. When Jackson tried appearing in public, he would be mobbed by fans or approached by photographers. He and his children appear as prisoners, with his daughter Paris repeatedly requesting that they return to their former home “Neverland” rather than move from home to home. Whitfield and Beard remain stalwarts in Jackson’s life, even when Jackson could not pay their salaries due to his dire financial straits.
Searching for Neverland does not reenact Jackson’s death, and Murray appears briefly in one scene. Since the Jackson Estate would not license any of the singer’s music for use, Navi sings and dances much less than one would expect from a Jackson biopic. Being a Lifetime film, the movie was clearly shot on a tight budget. The writing can appear heavy handed at times—when Jackson tells Whitfield he cannot perform five shows a week in Vegas, he shouts, “It would kill me, Bill. Kill me!” Other scenes are unnecessarily lengthy, such as Jackson’s Vegas shopping spree. In addition, some details are omitted or altered—for example, the recreation of Jackson’s final press conference announcing the “This Is It” London shows fails to portray how painfully thin and sluggish he appeared. In real life, it was clear from that moment that Jackson suffered from serious health problems.
Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland deserves credit for not exploiting the late singer’s legacy; indeed, the writers and actors appear highly respectful. However, the source material can be legitimately questioned—after all, few witnessed Jackson’s life from 2006-2009. Capturing Jackson’s complex life in just two hours is a tall order, and the film falls far short in that regard. If fans want another perspective on his life, however, the movie may provide limited insight into the final days of a tortured legend.