PARK CITY – There have been two court cases, endless conjecture and decades of late-night jokes, but somehow the rumors about Michael Jackson’s curious relations with young boys have been dismissed time after time. It’s almost as though the public at large (and press for that matter) knows there’s smoke where there’s fire and is simply willing to conveniently forget because of the adoration for Jackson’s musical catalog. Those continuing to look the other way may find that much harder to stomach after the debut of Dan Reed’s documentary “Leaving Neverland” which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival Saturday.
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The four-hour documentary, which will air on HBO this spring, centers on two men who separately met Jackson in the late 1980s, Wade Robson and James Safechuck. Reed uses both their voices and those of their immediate family to document these allegations. Pointedly, there are no members of Jackson’s family or former staff who are heard outside of news footage or found video. This is because Reed isn’t just interested in how Jackson’s abuse affected Robson and Safechuck, but the way in which Jackson enter their lives and the impact the revelations of abuse had on their families decades later.
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Both men’s stories are eerily similar despite the fact they were from vastly different worlds. Robson was a young 7-year-old in Brisbane, Australia who was a Jackson superfan. He had incredible dance skills for his age and won a contest that let him meet Jackson after a performance in his hometown (Eventually, Robson became a noted choreographer for NSYNC and Britney Spears). Safechuck was a child actor from Simi Valley who worked with Jackson on a memorable Pepsi commercial in 1987. Both were introduced to Jackson while he was at the height of his career around the time of the “Bad” album and tour, but neither knew of each other during their youth. Jackson would befriend both boys while also making sure he charmed and impressed their parents with his massive wealth and icon status.
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Within a very short time, Jackson had formed such a bond with each family that neither thought there was anything peculiar with their songs spending private time with the thirtysomething or staying over at one of his many Los Angeles area homes including the infamous Neverland Ranch. Jackson accomplished this by spending up to six or seven hours at a time on the phone with both Robson, Safechuck and, most importantly, their mothers. From their recollections his attention was incessant, he even made sure to call the boys almost immediately after they’d gotten home from school. If it sounds like a courtship that’s pretty much what it was.
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Obviously, these interactions seem strange today but it’s important to keep in context that at the time Jackson was seen as a children’s advocate donating resources to charities around the globe and singing songs of peace and love such as “We Are The World.” He had never been publicly accused of anything of a tawdry nature. And both mothers recalled how Jackson, who often complained of his lonely life, would seem like a child with their boys, it was as though they were playing with one of their own peers. Safechuck’s mother says she thought of Jackson, who would hang out at their home and have dinner with them, as “her son.”
Like a serial predator, Jackson used intimidation and affection to convince the boys to have explicit sex with him. Robson and Safechuck recount this to disturbing detail and it’s not a short segment either. And Reed and the film’s editor, Jules Cornell, excel at showing again and again how Jackson systematically used his superstar status to convince both Robson and Safechuck that by engaging in sexual acts they were simply loving each other. Moreover, if anyone found out he convinced both boys they would all go to jail. It was a secret that simply no one could know. Both men also recall how being in Jackson’s spotlight was so strong, so impressionable that it didn’t seem “wrong.” Jackson even staged a fake wedding ceremony with Safechuck where they committed their love to each other (he’d also give him jewelry for every different sexual act they did together).
Considering Jackson’s legal cases, the sexual abuse itself isn’t surprising even if the details are. What’s just as disturbing are the tactics Jackson used to keep the boys close to him and push their parents further and further away. One summer Safechuck and his mother accompanied Jackson on his tour overseas. As they moved from city to city, the separate suites Jackson and Safechuck and Safechuck’s mother stayed in would somehow get further and further away from each other. His mother took the hotel’s word as legitimate no matter how suspicious it seemed. Why wouldn’t she?
When Jackson was accused of abuse in 1993 by Jordan Chandler, both Robson, Safechuck and their parents publicly spoke out in support of him. The parents thought the accuser’s father was simply looking for money and the boys wanted to do anything possible to help their friend. Even though his interactions became more and more infrequent. But his attention was so addictive that when he appeared back in their lives it was hard to resist.
The last hour or so focuses on how Jackson’s death in 2009 and the birth of Robson and Safechuck’s children made them each confront the truth.
Reed has crafted an impressive four-hour doc even if the reliance on drone shots becomes almost comical and the film has a problem trying to tackle whether Jackson the artist and Jackson the pedophile can co-exist. Moreover, the fact Robson and Safechuck sued the Jackson estate for damages is mentioned, but why they sued is not. What was the reasoning besides monetary damages? Was it closure? What it to rewrite the history books? (A judge dismissed the case because it was no longer legal under the statute of limitations.)
The power of “Leaving Neverland,” however, may be defined in its own legacy. It will be hard pressed to convince diehard fans to even consider this truth. That being said, these are the sort of heartbreaking accounts that not only could prompt other Jackson victims to come forward but, other victims of sexual abuse. That’s a silver lining that Robson and Safechuck’s bravery in telling their stories in public can’t put a price on. [B+]
Check out all our coverage from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival here.