Sundance: 'Leaving Neverland' paints devastating portrait of Michael Jackson as serial pedophile
Dan Reed's shattering film is based on accounts of two men who say Jackson abused them for years when they were boys
Michael Jackson has been gone for almost a decade, but he remains a beloved figure to millions of ardent fans, many of whom seem to regard him as a messianic figure, a messenger of love and healing who cared deeply for the world's children.
His artistry will continue to be admired, but his reputation as a human being may never survive the damning portrait of him in the four-hour long documentary Leaving Neverland, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film directed by Dan Reed is based on the emotional and graphic accounts of two men--James Safechuck and Wade Robson--who say Jackson sexually abused them for years in the late 1980s and 1990s. Robson, now 36, says Jackson seduced him when he was seven years old and they continued a sexual relationship until he was 14. Safechuck, 40, says his sexual relationship with Jackson began when he was 10.
My whole life was focused on him...I was head over heels in love with Michael.
I attended the world premiere at the Egyptian Theatre Friday morning, a powerful experience that left me and apparently most of the audience deeply moved by what Robson and Safechuck have gone through as they have tried to come to terms with their relationships with Jackson. When they took the stage after the film ended the audience gave them a standing ovation.
Safechuck was a child actor when he met Jackson after starring in a Pepsi commercial that featured the entertainer. He described idolizing Jackson, and being overwhelmed when the biggest pop star on the planet began showering him with attention and encouragement. He recalled how Jackson allegedly groomed him, and endeavored to win the trust of his mother, who eventually consented to allow Jackson to spend time with her son alone.
Safechuck says Jackson made sexual overtures that began with fondling the boy, then progressed to deep kissing. He says Jackson "taught him" to masturbate, and insisted the boy pose naked on all fours and spread his buttocks' cheeks while Jackson watched and masturbated. The details may be difficult to read--or to hear in the film--but they add credibility to his account. According to Safechuck, Jackson swore him to secrecy and said if anything came out about what they were doing it would ruin Jackson's career and the boy's life. He recounts Jackson telling him their sexual contact was a way of showing love for each other.
Safechuck details having sex with Jackson on a regular basis in multiple rooms in his Neverland Ranch outside Los Olivos, California and at other locations, and the measures Jackson would take to make sure no one discovered them in the act. And he says Jackson introduced him to pornography, playing tapes of people engaged in heterosexual sex.
"Porn and candy. That's what he had," Safechuck comments in the film.
In one of the most shocking passages in Leaving Neverland, Safechuck says he and Jackson participated in a mock wedding ceremony, cementing their relationship. In the film he shows a ring that he says MJ gave him as a wedding band.
The pattern of alleged seduction was remarkably similar for Robson, who grew up in Australia. He got to meet Jackson at age seven after winning a dance contest in which the youngster mimicked MJ's signature moves.
As with Safechuck, Jackson allegedly ingratiated himself with the Robson's family, who could not believe the good fortune of an enormous star seeking to mentor their child. Robson moved to the U.S. with his mother and sister to be closer to Jackson, becoming increasingly attached to the singer. Robson's mother says Jackson called her son on the phone every day for two years, with many of the conversations lasting for hours.
"My whole life was focused on him," Robson says in Leaving Neverland. "I was head over heels in love with Michael."
He describes in chilling detail the sex acts Jackson encouraged, including performing oral sex on Jackson.
Some of the most wrenching moments in the documentary come as the men describe their conflicted feelings about Jackson--expressing a love for him that in some ways continues today. They describe Jackson's sexual interest in them waning as they matured, and experiencing feelings of jealously when Jackson's attention would shift to other attractive, pre-pubescent boys like Jordy Chandler (Chandler's family would eventually sue Jackson for alleged sexual abuse, settling out of court for millions of dollars).
In 2003 Jackson was accused of sexually molesting another boy in Santa Barbara County and he was tried on those charges in 2005 (I covered those events for CNN, spending 10 days outside Neverland Ranch as jury deliberations continued, which eventually resulted in Jackson's acquittal). Robson testified in Jackson's defense, denying the singer ever molested him. That paradox--both Robson and Safechuck defending Jackson for years when they knew what he allegedly had done to them--constitute part of the psychological complexity of the film.
At the Q&A following the world premiere, director Dan Reed was asked how he approached the interviews with Robson and Safechuck that form the heart of the film.
"Both of them had spoken to lawyers and spoken to therapists [in the past] and I said, 'You're speaking to the person in the street, the ordinary person. Just speak the story in the simplest way you can, in the most honest way you can. Don't worry about anything, any contradictions, any contradictory feelings you might have. Just tell it like it is,'" Reed explained. "And that's what they both extraordinarily did over several days. I interviewed Wade for three days and James for two days. Then we would pick up interviews afterwards. And it just came out. I was blown away."
Robson, who has enjoyed a successful career as a choreographer, and Safechuck, now a computer programmer, previously filed lawsuits against Jackson's estate and Jackson-owned companies, but the suits were dismissed. They say they were not paid to take part in the film.
"From the get-go there was no money ever offered," Safechuck told the audience. "This was really just trying to tell the story, shine light on it."
"We can't change what happened to us. And we can't particularly do anything about stopping Michael. I mean, he's dead. That's gone, right. What happened happened," Robson added. "So the feeling is 'What can we do with it now? How can we use this platform to tell the story and hopefully it helps other survivors feel less isolated and something they can relate to and validates their story and then one of my greatest hopes is just raising awareness for parents, for teachers, for business leaders--anybody responsible for children, to try and prevent this from happening, as much as possible."
Even though it happened to me I still couldn't believe it, I still couldn't believe that what Michael did was a bad thing.
Jackson fans have attacked Leaving Neverland and Jackson's accusers. And the entertainer's late family issued a statement to People magazine in anticipation of the film's premiere that denigrated Safechuck and Robson.
"This is yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson,” the statement said. “Wade Robson and James Safechuck have both testified under oath that Michael never did anything inappropriate toward them. Safechuck and Robson, the latter a self-proclaimed ‘master of deception’, filed lawsuits against Michael’s Estate, asking for millions of dollars. Both lawsuits were dismissed.”
At the Q&A the men were asked what they might say to try to convince people who doubt their veracity.
"I don't feel like there's anything I need to say to them," Robson responded, a comment that was met with applause, "except that I understand that it's really hard for them to believe. Because, in a way, not that long ago, I was in the same position they were. Even though it happened to me I still couldn't believe it, I still couldn't believe that what Michael did was a bad thing. Up until whatever it was that I disclosed--six years ago. So I understand. We can only accept and understand something when we're ready and maybe we'll never be ready. Maybe we will. So that's their journey."
HBO will air Leaving Neverland later in 2019.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.