“Leaving Neverland” is about dreams turned to nightmares, featuring twin accounts of Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual predation that derive power and credibility from their strikingly similar parallels. It’s an unsettling tale of money, fame and seduction, insidiously marshalled not just at young boys but their equally star-struck parents.
The late pop star’s staunchest defenders have long pushed back against such allegations, and it’s hard to imagine much shaking those convictions. The Jackson estate has already fired back at the film after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, calling it a “public lynching” and Jackson’s accusers “admitted liars,” in reference to sworn statements by both while Jackson was alive that he did not molest them.
Yet in the face of the detailed recollections assiduously laid out by Wade Robson, James “Jimmy” Safechuck and their families over this four-hour HBO documentary, anyone inclined to dismiss these charges out of hand might be forced to reconsider. (CNN and HBO share parent company WarnerMedia.)
Safechuck, now 36, and Robson, 40, came into contact with Jackson professionally — Safechuck at age eight, when he appeared with him in a 1986 Pepsi commercial; and Robson at age five, after winning a dance-alike contest when Jackson performed in Brisbane, Australia.
About 40 minutes elapse before the participants begin to lay out the most disturbing allegations, and from then on, “Leaving Neverland” is not easy to watch. Both allege in stoic but chilling fashion about Jackson’s gradually escalating sexual contact, accompanied by Jackson allegedly pressuring them not to divulge what was happening.
Alternating between the pair’s stories, director Dan Reed follows their personal journeys into adulthood, methodically addressing specific incidents from multiple perspectives, including those of family members.
The rift that the cited events caused between the two and their parents — who allowed their sons to spend so much unsupervised time with a grown man, due in part to his child-like qualities — and the guilt associated with that, are at the core of the uncomfortable picture that “Leaving Neverland” paints. These are tales of abuse that, as described, continued for years, with the boys’ status as Jackson’s companions only shifting when new youths entered his life.
Even now, their mothers sound wide-eyed reminiscing about the opulence to which they were exposed. At one point,Robson’s family embarked on a trip to the Grand Canyon, while he stayed behind with Jackson alone as the “sex stuff,” as he puts it, occurred.
“It was a fairy tale, every night,” says Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie, describing Neverland as being “a child’s dream come true.”
Reed employs a device that’s at first off-putting — indeed, almost creepy — by incorporating a lush musical score that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Hallmark Channel movie. As the film progresses, though, it’s clear that he’s trying to approximate the otherworldly qualities of being drawn into Jackson’s orbit, and the perks that flowed from the mega-stardom that surrounded him.
Jackson’s wealth and fame have always complicated this story, as was evident in the outpouring of emotion unleashed by his death in 2009. Those attributes were also used to silence or discredit accusers, underscored by a clip showing attorney Mark Geragos threatening to unleash a “legal torrent” upon those who would besmirch Jackson’s reputation. (Geragos is employed by CNN as a contributor.)
Robson testified in support of Jackson at his 2005 trial, where he was acquitted of child molestation and related charges, and Safechuck at one point denied he was molested by Jackson to investigators.
Their parents acknowledge their initial belief that accusations pertaining to other children were just a money grab. There is also the matter of the gifts Jackson lavished upon them, helping the Safechucks buy a house — something that Safechuck’s mom admits made it look as if they were being bought off.
The evidence doesn’t begin and end with the key subjects here.
There are Jackson’s own perplexing statements, including the 2003 Martin Bashir TV interview in which the then-44-year-old singer insisted there was nothing wrong with sharing his bed with minors, defending the practice as innocent and “a beautiful thing.”
To those who would ask about revisiting this material now, beyond the enduring fascination with Jackson, this latest chapter notably comes after people have been compelled to reconsider their views of other beloved entertainers, among them Bill Cosby, and the high bar faced by alleged victims.
In that respect, “Leaving Neverland” possesses another layer of relevance in methodically tackling the King of Pop, and a musical legacy that has long since been at the very least clouded, and for many, forever tarnished.
Correction: The headline in a previous version of this story incorrectly referred to a different movie. The headline has been updated.