Fair warning for those curious about exactly what Michael Jackson did to little boys: The two-part, four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland goes into gruesome, nauseating, nightmarish detail about the King of Pop’s depredations. But it’s also disturbing for another reason, one you might not have anticipated.
Debuting on HBO March 3 and 4 after a previous series of screenings at the Sundance Film Festival, this enraging film by Dan Reed inspired a lawsuit against the pay-cable channel from Jackson’s estate, which desperately wants people not to see a story that may significantly diminish the value of his brand. It’s a wonder that there is any brand left to defend, given that four men have now made detailed, credible claims that Jackson sexually abused them as minors over extended periods of time.
Leaving Neverland is a soulful, anguished profile of two men who met Jackson when they were prepubescent children and today wish they hadn’t. Listening to their stories today, it’s evident that Jackson did massive long-lasting damage to their psyches. James Safechuck, a child actor, first met Jackson at nine while filming a famous 1988 Pepsi commercial in which he is excitedly examining Jackson’s dressing room when the singer pops in. The commercial, Safechuck says, genuinely captured his first glimpse of the celebrity.
Around the same time, Wade Robson, then five, met Jackson after putting on a dazzling performance in a dance contest in Australia, causing the singer to bring the boy on stage for concerts and invite him to show his moves in front of a huge crowd. When the Australian tour wound down, Jackson invited the boy to look him up in LA sometime. Driven by his mother, Joy, the family managed to make contact with Jackson on vacation when the boy was seven. Jackson immediately invited the Robson family to stay at his huge ranch, Neverland. Wade and his ten-year-old sister were allowed to sleep in Jackson’s room. Days later, Jackson talked the family into allowing Wade to stay behind with him while the rest of the family went to the Grand Canyon. “You and I were brought together by God,” Robson recalls Jackson saying. “We were meant to be together and this is us showing each other that we love each other. This is how we show our love.” Jackson fondled the boy’s genitals, then guided the child to his own. Jackson initiated oral sex and guided the boy to follow suit. “Other people are ignorant and they’re stupid, they’d never understand,” Robson recalls Jackson telling him. “If they ever found out what we were doing . . . we’d be pulled apart. He and I would go to jail for the rest of our lives.” Later, at Jackson’s coaxing, after Jackson called Wade every day for two years and kept him on the phone for up to seven hours at a time, Joy simply moved with Wade and her daughter from Australia to southern California, leaving her husband and other son behind. The move ultimately destroyed the family. Wade’s father would later commit suicide.
Safechuck’s story follows a similar pattern. He recalls being lured quickly into Jackson’s bed at age ten. His starstruck mother, Stephanie, was disarmed by Jackson’s childlike demeanor and began thinking of the pop star as her own son. Safechuck’s memories of Jackson’s sexual abuse are similar to Robson’s. Jackson staged a mock wedding ceremony, Robson recalls, in which the singer presented the boy with a ring lined with diamonds. “He would reward me with jewelry for doing sexual acts for him,” he says.
Jackson, who in 1995 settled a civil suit for a reported $23 million after being accused of sexual abuse by Jordan Chandler, was arrested in 2003 on charges of serially molesting 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo, a cancer-stricken boy he had met through a charity. During his criminal trial, Jackson urged both Safechuck and Robson, now adults, to testify that he had done nothing inappropriate with them. Safechuck simply declined, and in his silence he incurred Jackson’s wrath. “He threatened me with his lawyers and said I had perjured myself years ago,” he recalls. The lawyers would “get me,” he says Jackson told him.
At the same time, Robson recalls that he was still somewhat attached to Jackson. He panicked at the thought of the singer in prison, and what might happen to him there. Perhaps Jackson would even be murdered behind bars, he thought. So he lied, offering false testimony that Jackson had not done anything sexual to him. “For Gavin I wish I was at a place where I could tell the truth and be a comrade with him,” Robson says now. “I just wasn’t ready.” His testimony and that of actor Macaulay Culkin, another man who had spent a lot of time with Jackson as a boy and also testified that nothing inappropriate had happened, probably helped sway the jury, and Jackson was acquitted on all counts in 2005. He would die four years later.
Years after their time with Jackson, both Safechuck and Robson married and had children, and becoming fathers triggered more revulsion at what had happened to them. The final 45 minutes or so of the documentary delve into their depression and torment as well as that of their mothers, each of whom searches her soul at excruciating length. What can it be like to know that you abetted the long-term despoliation of your own son? Safechuck says Jackson abused him for four years; Robson says his nightmare lasted seven years. Both mothers own up to what they did, and neither will ever be able to live with herself again. Says Stephanie, “I danced when I heard that he died.” She thought, “Oh thank God, he can’t hurt any more children.”
Throughout the film, everyone involved marvels at his or her own acquiescence to the acts of a monster. No one heard any alarm bells going off. No one saw any red flags. Both boys and their mothers were fully in the singer’s thrall. Jackson’s fame was central to why he got away with so much. Leaving Neverland is a harsh reminder that supposed role models who ought to be held to the highest of standards can use that notoriety as a way of blinding people to the obvious, odious truth.
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