Warning: This story contains spoilers for Leaving Neverland, as well as graphic details about alleged sexual assaults.
I was three years old when the first allegations of sexual abuse surfaced against Michael Jackson in 1993, 13 when he was arrested on a new batch of charges in 2003, and 15 when his highly publicized trial began in 2005. I vividly remember the day he died in June 2009. I was at my summer job at a shoe store in Montreal, and my boss cried.
That timeline means two things: First, that I missed the peak of the pop superstar’s fame (circa 1982 to, roughly, 1991), that moment when he was well and truly untouchable, on top of the world. But also, that for the near entirety of my life, Jackson has been a suspected pedophile. For me, it’s an enormous asterix to his legend, the caveat that lurks in the back of my mind whenever “Thriller” plays.
As a result, I felt like I knew what I was getting into when I started Leaving Neverland, Dan Reed’s controversial documentary in which two men recount their personal experiences with Jackson as children, including alleged sexual abuse that they kept hidden until adulthood. But nothing — not Sundance hype, not news about Jackson fans protesting the content, or even Paris Jackson’s rumoured meltdown — can prepare you for 236 minutes (roughly four hours) of virtually uninterrupted, brutal testimony by James Safechuck and Wade Robson about the years of alleged abuse (starting at age 11 and 7, respectively) that has largely derailed their lives, and that of their families.
Both men met Jackson during the same year, in 1987. California native Safechuck wasn’t a fan but booked a job as Jackson’s counterpart on a Pepsi commercial when he was 10 years old. Australian-born Robson was mesmerized by the “Thriller” video, and taught himself to dance like Jackson so convincingly that he won at lookalike contest at the age of 5. The prize? A meeting with Jackson during his tour in Australia which morphed into a stage appearance for Robson. In both cases, the singer kept in touch, turning the boys into mascots of sorts, and inviting them on tour with him, and to his multiple residences, including Neverland Ranch, his massive, amusement-park-like property near Santa Barbara.
Ironically, neither Robson nor Safechuck had heard of each other until 2013, when the latter filed a lawsuit (four years after Jackson’s death) against MJJ Productions and MJJ Ventures for hosting the dance competition that led him to Jackson, and the ensuing alleged abuse. Robson’s admission prompted Safechuck to file his own suit against Jackson’s estate in 2014. (In the U.S., a person seeking damages for emotional trauma or personal injury has legal recourse even after the person allegedly responsible has died.) Both cases were dismissed in 2017. (For a complete timeline, head to Spin.)
As many of his fans have already pointed out, this means Jackson has thus far been cleared of all charges ever brought against him. (His 1993 case was settled for roughly $23 million, with amounts paid out in a trust fund for accuser Jordan Chandler, and lump sums for each of his parents, among others.) Still, those cold facts lose their potency when faced with the sheer amount of clinical, precise recollections by both Safechuck and Robson, many of which echo each other in unsettling ways.
The documentary will be released on HBO in two parts airing on March 3 and 4. And if you’re planning on watching, here’s a preview of what you can expect.
Graphic details of sexual assault
I cannot stress this enough. There’s a reason this will air in two separate parts. It is gruelling, and difficult to sit through. Sundance screenings featured mandated counsellors on call in the lobby for viewers who might need them, a luxury those watching at home won’t have. So, if you are worried you might be triggered, trust your gut.
Both Safechuck (now 40), and Robson (now 36), go into great detail about what they claim the singer asked of them sexually. A particularly gutting scene features Safechuck narrating a photo tour of the Neverland Ranch, listing the many, many rooms in which he and Jackson had sexual contact, and exactly what they did there. In another memory, of the first time Jackson showed him how to masturbate — at the age of 11 — he describes how his pre-pubescent penis became so inflamed from use that he had to dip it in warm water to soothe the pain. As for Robson, his memories of abuse begin even earlier, when, as a 7-year-old, he was invited to the Neverland Ranch after traveling to Hollywood from Australia. Robson describes Jackson sending him to a far corner of the bed, and then telling him to bend over and spread his butt cheeks so he could masturbate. His voice gets hoarse when he talks about the feeling of having an adult man’s penis inside his eight-year-old mouth. And it only escalates from there.
Voicemails and phone calls from Jackson to Safechuck and Robson
A guiding thread throughout the documentary is that Jackson would go through very intense phases of being infatuated with a boy — and in Safechuck and Robson’s case, their families — during which he would remain in near-constant contact. Take Robson, for example. He first met Jackson in 1987, after winning a dancing contest in Australia. (He would later become a sought-after choreographer, working with Britney Spears and N’Sync among others.) The singer, in Brisbane for his Bad tour, brought him up on stage for a dance routine. For the next two years, he called Robson nearly every day, keeping him on the phone for up to seven hours. He even asked the family to get a fax machine so that he could send them handwritten messages, and left heartfelt voicemails ending with “I love you.”
Reed includes a lot of these in the documentary, and, when presented in the context of Safechuck and Robson’s interviews, they are damning. (The high-pitched, sing-songy timber of Jackson’s voice doesn’t help to allay any feelings of discomfort.) Regardless of what you think of the validity of the sexual abuse claims, it’s hard to dispute that this international superstar comes off as a lonely and disturbed grown man seeking inappropriate solace in the attention of young boys.
Disturbing and candid footage and photos of the icon with small children
Reed purposefully kept the interview circle pretty closed off, which means that we get little context beyond Safechuck and Robson’s immediate experience, combined with the perspective of some close family members and their own spouses. (Jackson’s estate has issued a statement denying the allegations as false, and questioning the motives of Safechuck, Robson and Reed.)
But while that technique does immerse the viewer in their world, I’d argue it also limits the film’s ability to give a real sense of what it meant to be Michael Jackson in the late 80s and into the early 90s. Think Beyoncé + Taylor Swift + Ariana Grande + Rihanna, and then multiply that by a hundred. For people like myself, who grew up during his controversy-filled years, it can be difficult to fathom.
As a result, the sheer amount of public footage of the singer holding hands or in close contact with little boys — including child star Macaulay Culkin, who denies any abuse took place — really comes as a shock. The kind of behaviour depicted even in the film’s more innocent moments, like Jackson palling around on the set of a Pepsi ad with Safechuck in the late 80s, feels wrong. And without fully grasping just how powerful and beloved of a public figure Jackson was, it’s impossible not to constantly wonder how this was ever considered harmless.
The same goes for Jackson’s own childhood, which is alluded to by many, but never explained. It might be easier to understand the collective acceptance of a grown man wanting to “play” and spending his evenings watching movies and bingeing on popcorn, if his behaviour was put in the context of his early fame with the Jackson Five, and the rough treatment and physical abuse he was subjected to by his father, Joe Jackson.
That kind of context might also help elucidate why both families were so eager to host the man they viewed as a kind of lost boy. Safechuck and Robson’s mothers describe regarding Jackson as their son, and he clearly viewed these adults as the parental figures he lacked himself. Unposed pictures of him with both families appear like potential Christmas cards upon first viewing — but as the boys’ tales unfold, those same candid moments take on a much darker nature.
Interviews with the mothers and wives of both alleged victims
What makes Robson and Safechucks’s memories even more difficult to sit through is the fact that their mothers were often within earshot of what was going on. Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck are brutally honest in the roles they unknowingly played in their sons’ alleged abuse. At one point, Stephanie even describes sneaking up to the door of the hotel room where James was staying with Jackson, and trying to hear what was going on. “They were playing,” she recalls.
The gut reaction to such testimony is disgust. How could these parents allow their young sons to be put in such situations? How could they fail their children in this way? The film doesn’t let them off the hook (and it shouldn’t) but it also tries to answer those difficult questions. One of the most interesting aspects of Leaving Neverland is the way it exposes the dangerous lure of fame by proxy. You get the sense that neither Joy nor Stephanie would have gone along with the kind of requests Jackson made had it been anyone else. They’re very candid about how special he made them feel, and how excited they were at the idea of what he could make happen for their sons, but also for them. Both claim they knew nothing of what was really going on. And yet, as the film reaches its second hour, they’re forced to grapple with their own failings, especially when confronted with interviews with Safechuck and Robson’s respective wives, who act as impartial observers, having not witnessed any of this firsthand.
Messy, complicated emotions
Neither of the men, nor their families, conceal the real affection and feelings they held for Jackson. Robson’s sister, who also grew up in Jackson’s orbit, tearfully describes how upset she was when she learned from a newscast that her “friend” had died in June 2009. Joy and Stephanie described Jackson as a surrogate child at multiple points throughout the film. When he died, Joy kept to her bed for weeks. (Stephanie, who was aware of her son’s story by then, says she celebrated.)
Describing the constant sexual contact of his early years with the singer, Safechuck says: “It sounds sick but it’s like when you’re first dating somebody, you do it a lot.”
Both men describe being in love with the singer, and wanting to participate in sexual acts to please him. It’s a jolting reminder of the insidious nature of child sexual abuse, so deftly portrayed in HBO’s The Tale just last year: victims often don’t consider that what they are experiencing as abuse until years later. For Robson and Safechuck, the turning point arrived when they themselves became fathers, and realized just how young they really were when all of this was allegedly taking place.
All of this is made even messier by the fact that Safechuck and Robson both testified in favour of Jackson at various points in his history of legal troubles — and forcefully denied that they were themselves abused — making them feel complicit in his alleged pattern of abuse, which they claim extended far beyond themselves.
The second half of the film is largely devoted to Safechuck and Robson coming to terms with their trauma, and the impact that Jackson has had on their lives. And regardless of what you as a viewer end up believing, Leaving Neverland is a powerful indictment of the perils of fame, and those who come too close to its glare.