The first audiences have emerged from the theater after seeing Leaving Neverland, the HBO doc about allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson by Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and it reportedly left critics shocked and stunned. The two-part series premiered at The Sundance Film Festival on Friday, it mandated having counselors on call in the lobby due to its sexually explicit content, according to one attendee.
Robson and Safechuck allege that they were abused by Jackson after meeting him at the ages of seven and 10, respectively, and this documentary takes a closer and harrowing look at the specifics of their claims.
"On a 10-min break halfway through Sundance’s 4-hour Michael Jackson child sex abuse documentary," Daily Beast senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon tweeted. "Whatever you thought you knew or were aware of, the content of this is more disturbing than you could imagine. And again, we’re only halfway through."
On a 10-min break halfway through Sundance’s 4-hour Michael Jackson child sex abuse documentary. Whatever you thought you knew or were aware of, the content of this is more disturbing than you could imagine. And again, we’re only halfway through.— Kevin Fallon (@kpfallon) January 25, 2019
"Feel sick to my stomach after watching Part 1 of #LeavingNeverland doc," Us Weekly's Mara Reinstein wrote. "Michael Jackson witnesses/sex abuse victims coming off very credible. It’s so sexually explicit that counselors are in the lobby."
Critic Scott Mantz also described the film as having, "Shocking, vivid, detailed, disturbing, lengthy accounts of *alleged* sexual abuse by pop superstar #MichaelJackson on underage minors — 2 of them now grown up & interviewed extensively. Similar seductive patterns w/ both families. #Sundance."
LEAVING NEVERLAND (PART 1): Shocking, vivid, detailed, disturbing, lengthly accounts of *alleged* sexual abuse by pop superstar #MichaelJackson on underage minors — 2 of them now grown up & interviewed extensively. Similar seductive patterns w/ both families. #Sundance pic.twitter.com/vakXMTjbTR— Scott Mantz (@MovieMantz) January 25, 2019
Director Dan Reed previously said in a statement, per HBO, that he believes, "anyone who watches this film will see and feel the emotional toll on the men and their families and will appreciate the strength it takes to confront long-held secrets."
Jackson's estate issued a long statement dismissing the accusations in the documentary and attacking the characters of the two accusers as well as the film's director, per the Los Angeles Times.
In its entirety, the statement reads:
"Leaving Neverland isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death. The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact. These claims were the basis of lawsuits filed by these two admitted liars which were ultimately dismissed by a judge. The two accusers testified under oath that these events never occurred. They have provided no independent evidence and absolutely no proof in support of their accusations, which means the entire film hinges solely on the word of two perjurers.
Tellingly, the director admitted at the Sundance Film Festival that he limited his interviews only to these accusers and their families. In doing so, he intentionally avoided interviewing numerous people over the years who spent significant time with Michael Jackson and have unambiguously stated that he treated children with respect and did nothing hurtful to them. By choosing not to include any of these independent voices who might challenge the narrative that he was determined to sell, the director neglected fact checking so he could craft a narrative so blatantly one-sided that viewers never get anything close to a balanced portrait.
For 20 years Wade Robson denied in court and in numerous interviews, including after Michael passed, that he was a victim and stated he was grateful for everything Michael had done for him. His family benefited from Michael’s kindness, generosity and career support up until Michael’s death. Conveniently left out of “Leaving Neverland” was the fact that when Robson was denied a role in a Michael Jackson themed Cirque du Soleil production, his assault allegations suddenly emerged.
We are extremely sympathetic to any legitimate victim of child abuse. This film, however, does those victims a disservice. Because despite all the disingenuous denials made that this is not about money, it has always been about money – millions of dollars -- dating back to 2013 when both Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who share the same law firm, launched their unsuccessful claims against Michael’s Estate. Now that Michael is no longer here to defend himself, Robson, Safechuck and their lawyers continue their efforts to achieve notoriety and a payday by smearing him with the same allegations a jury found him innocent of when he was alive.
– The Estate of Michael Jackson"
Leaving Neverland is slated to air on HBO and the UK's Channel 4 in the spring.
This story was originally published on January 25, 2019, additional reporting was added.