Is Michael Jackson’s image being cleaned up?

These allegations plagued Jackson from 1993, when he was accused of child molestation by 13-year-old Jordan Chandler and his father Evan Chandler. In his Puck News article, Belloni specifically alleges that the script he has seen goes to “great lengths to minimise and downplay” the Chandlers’ allegation. Further accusations continued to surface, during and after Jackson’s life; the 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland centres two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who graphically claim that they were childhood victims of sexual abuse by Jackson. The Jackson family estate issued firm rebuttals, including a statement condemning Leaving Neverland as “a public lynching”; they also sued broadcaster/producer HBO for violating a 1992 agreement never to disparage Jackson’s image.

In a recent interview, Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed told The Times that he had been informed of the draft script for the upcoming Michael biopic, and branded it “a complete whitewash”. Reed, who is planning a follow-up to his doc, added: “It’s an out-and-out attempt to completely rewrite the allegations and dismiss them out of hand, and contains complete lies. You never even see him alone with any boys, when it is a matter of fact that he shared his bed with small children for many years.” 

A spokesperson for the film Michael told the BBC in a statement: “From the beginning the Michael Jackson estate put their trust in Graham King, stepping out of the creative process.” Meanwhile King himself said in a statement: “I went into this project with an open mind and spent years researching Michael Jackson’s life and work – from his artistry to his public and private struggles, to his humanitarian efforts.

“Michael’s life was complicated. As a filmmaker, I look to humanise but not sanitise and present the most compelling, unbiased story I can capture in a single feature film and let the audience decide how they feel after watching it. Michael clearly remains an impactful, culturally relevant artist with a life and legacy worth exploring.”

The BBC has also contacted the Michael Jackson estate for comment, but they have not responded.

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Without doubt, the abuse allegations deeply corroded Jackson’s reputation; in 2021 a US tax court judge stated that Jackson had “earned not a penny from his image and likeness in 2006, 2007 or 2008”, showing “the effect those allegations had, and continued to have, until his death”. What’s intriguing, though, is that Jackson’s popularity appears to be steadily rising again in the digital era. As Billboard recently noted, between 2021 and 2023, global consumption of his music grew from 4.7 billion to 6.5 billion on-demand streams (an increase of 38.3%); meanwhile, in February, Sony Music Group confirmed it would acquire half of Jackson’s catalogue, in a deal that values his music assets at more than $1.2bn.

However this turn of fortunes has not entirely swept the troubles away, with the allegations continuing to cast a shadow over his legacy and representations of his story. Covering MJ The Musical, The New York Times praised certain elements such as the choreography but observed in the headline that “No-one’s looking at the man in the mirror”, while the San Francisco Chronicle opined that “MJ is pop perfection. It also has an allegation-shaped hole”.

The basis of his fandom

The clean-up of his image – via bombastic display or damage-limitation – has arguably been ongoing for decades. British journalist Laura Lee Davies was the music editor at Time Out London when she covered the surreal publicity stunt around the release of Jackson’s HIStory album (1995), including a megalithic sculpture of MJ floated down the River Thames.

“The thing was: he [Jackson] was the biggest artist on the planet, he needed to rehabilitate a bit because while there wasn’t anything proven, there were definitely allegations that hadn’t gone away,” recalls Davies. “There was already the ‘Wacko Jacko’ idea because of his strange behaviour and his looks increasingly not chiming with the young guy on the cover of his earlier albums. We were used to pop spectacle at that time – and then this thing appeared which actually looked tiny and insignificant and kind of funny… because you saw this 30ft statue next to Tower Bridge, which is 200ft (61m) high.

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