(CNN) — Narrowly focused on the last few years of his life, “Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland” labors to humanize the King of Pop, acknowledging eccentricities but portraying him as an object of sympathy. While reasonably effective dramatically speaking, its reception will likely depend on how one views Jackson’s alleged behavior with children.
“Searching for Neverland” opens after a flurry of those allegations in 2005 forced Jackson to become something of a nomad, temporarily relocating Las Vegas. It’s based on the book “Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days,” by a pair of bodyguards who became his confidantes, published after his death in 2009.
The title notwithstanding, Jackson is largely a supporting player here, which is probably wise. A Jackson impersonator, Navi, plays the singer in his acting debut, and while the physical resemblance is striking, his accent keeps leaking out in distracting fashion when he’s speaking as opposed to singing.
The focus, rather, is on Bill Whitfield (“The Wire” alum Chad L. Coleman), whose life is upended when what’s supposed to be a short assignment turns into becoming the reclusive Jackson’s companion, protector and, along with Javon Beard (Sam Adegoke), all-purpose helper. Bill’s narration gives the movie a certain literary quality, while framing the disjointed episodes that are depicted.
“Searching for Neverland” also engages in its share of dramatic foreshadowing about Jackson’s inevitable fate. “I can’t do five nights a week. It would kill me,” Jackson says about performing regularly, a prospect that eventually leads to his abuse of prescription drugs after Dr. Conrad Murray enters the picture.
Jackson is presented as a loving and devoted father, if still a child in a grown-up’s body himself. He lives as a virtual prisoner, leery of paparazzi and the unfair way he believes he’s treated.
“Why do people call you Wacko Jacko?” one of the kids asks, while somewhat soft-peddling how the star earned that nickname.
Despite his enormous wealth, Jackson is also shown having serious liquidity issues during this period, so much so that staff isn’t getting paid and a lavish toy-store shopping spree becomes painfully awkward when his credit card is denied.
Speaking to the authorities, the bodyguards indignantly describe themselves as “the only two people looking out for him” — an assertion that would have more authority, seemingly, if we weren’t watching a movie adapted from their book.
The truth is plenty of people wanted a piece of Jackson while he was alive and, because he remains a source of fascination, the exploitation continues after his death. For those who find that situation lamentable, Jackson got one thing right when he suggested taking a look at the man in the mirror.
“Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland” premieres May 29 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.