Leaving Neverland could never be mistaken for a music documentary.

By now, this isn't Michael Jackson's story to tell: we heard his side of things many times, while even posthumously, the case for the defence still fumes away.

It's the story of two men aged 36 and 41, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who have laid out, in gruellingly graphic detail, what their boyhood friendships with Jackson entailed.

It's all here, if you have an ounce of suspicion that Jackson's cosy sleepovers with boys as young as seven - Robson's age, when he says he was first sexually abused - might ever have crossed a line.

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The idea of Jackson serially abusing these children was unthinkable, somehow, at the peak of his fame.

But it's the fame itself, we're now primed to understand, that dazzled and blinded, letting him get so close to the likes of Wade and James in the first place, and keeping him inoculated from any repercussions for many, many years afterwards.

To finally bring those repercussions home, the burden of Dan Reed's film, with its shocking litany of bedside horrors, is more than anything a journalistic one.

It needs to convince us that these stories add up, unpicking a knot of apparent contradictions.

Even as late as Jackson's criminal trial in 2005, when he was 22, Robson had been a witness for the defence, flatly denying any wrongdoing throughout their long association.

Only in 2013, four years after the singer's death, did he first come forward to file a suit against the estate, seemingly after being cut off.

Michael Jackson invited Jimmy Safechuck to his Bad tour. Photo / HBO
Michael Jackson invited Jimmy Safechuck to his Bad tour. Photo / HBO

Reed has to make emotional sense of these inconsistencies, a job largely deferred to the second half of the film, when Robson and his mother Joy get lengthier opportunities to explain themselves.

The first half, with no aftermath to consider quite yet, came at us like a slow-motion gut punch - crude and a little artless, but winding in its impact.

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Peppering his account with grim humour, Safechuck is a more devastating witness for the prosecution than any Jackson faced in his lifetime, perhaps because the perspective of adulthood, without exactly mellowing his point of view, has enabled him to step back and see the relationship for exactly what it was.

This interview cuts deep: his trembling loss of composure as he handles a diamond-embossed Rolex ring - with which Jackson "married" him at the age of 10 - impresses itself on you like a hot brand.

Reed's approach works best when it zeroes in on this kind of detail. He isn't aiming for the analytical scope of, say, OJ: Made in America, the Oscar-winning account of the OJ Simpson trial.

Nor does Reed interpose himself - not on camera, in the pushy, muckraking fashion of a Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore, and not behind it, to supply the disembodied questions of an Errol Morris.

All his thought is in the edit and the structure, allowing the families to step forward as our storytellers, although the film also incorporates an impressive amount of grainy video footage of the boys.

Still, some decisions muddy the film's persuasiveness.

Dan Reed has taken a journalistic approach to the film Leaving Neverland. Photo / HBO
Dan Reed has taken a journalistic approach to the film Leaving Neverland. Photo / HBO

Over drone shots of Neverland - Jackson's magic kingdom - Reed has chosen a syrupy music score which swells as if ushering us into a Disney fairy tale, while the families reminisce about those early, happy days winning their equivalent of Willy Wonka's golden ticket. Setting this all up as a mirage is a tabloidy idea that loses its point.

There are one or two issues Reed can't satisfyingly resolve, particularly around Joy Robson's state of ignorance, sleeping soundly in adjacent rooms while the nightly abuse was happening that her son asserts.

"What you'd think would be standard instincts and judgments flew out the window," she pleads, while the film tries hard to understand how Jackson groomed her, too, by exploiting the idea of his own vulnerability, as an overgrown child-star begging to be mothered.

The film has to pick its way through some troubling thickets of motive, and frames earlier denials as proof of the psychological damage he wrought.

Setting about this side of things with necessary tact, Reed bolsters the case using only the building blocks of what these two families have to say.

No authorities weigh in, no lawyers. The purity is that it begins and ends with survivor testimony, chillingly credible in its details, from Safechuck and Robson.

If the film feels hazier on wider implications, that may simply be because the extent of Jackson's long-suspected, never-proven culpability suddenly knows no bounds.