Dan Reed’s two-part, four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland, in which former protégés of Michael Jackson describe years of molestation, scars the mind with words. The result is no mere account of a celebrity scandal, nor is it content to be a portrait of a disturbed musical genius who survived his own abusive childhood (at the hands of his father and manager, Joe Jackson). It’s a radically empathetic film about the resonating impact of sexual abuse, as well as the personal and social forces that conspire to keep people from talking about it in public.
Leaving Neverland arrives on HBO two years after the first wave of #MeToo allegations, which exposed an array of outrages and crimes by men (and a handful of women) in power. The documentary, which airs on Sunday and Monday night, feels like a conversation-realigning milestone. It will draw viewers by listing the alleged misdeeds of a pop icon — one who was arguably bigger than the rest, even Bill Cosby — and perhaps inspire many of them to view him through a darker lens, but it is ultimately not about Jackson. It’s about two sexual-abuse survivors telling their stories with unprecedented frankness, illuminating not just the sickness of a legend, but the pervasiveness of a crime that exists at every level of society, and that hides behind abuser-friendly notions of despoilment and shame.
We never see the acts that James Safechuck and Wade Robson say they endured as minors while visiting Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and Century City apartment, but these are described in such detail that viewers may be seized by a new impulse: to look away from what they’re hearing. Mutual masturbation; oral sex; penetration; regular exposure to orgies and porn; emotional abuse characterized as special attention: Jackson is accused of all this and more. Safechuck and Robson were children when Jackson “discovered” them — Robson in Brisbane, Australia, where the boy had been performing with a kids’ dance troupe; Safechuck in Los Angeles, on the set of a beloved Pepsi ad about a small boy exploring Jackson’s backstage dressing room and doting on his gloves and hat. Safechuck was 9. Robson was 7. As these now-adult men speak of what they saw and did in in the late 1980s and early ’90s — the era when they say Jackson groomed them — they talk slowly and softly, doubling back to add details or amend descriptions. Years ago, Robson testified in court and Safechuck publicly supported the singer, both countering other protégés who’d accused Jackson of crimes. They know full well that a lot of people watching Leaving Neverland will reflexively disbelieve them because their new testimony contradicts what came before (and because they each unsuccessfully sued Jackson’s estate in the years after his death). They know that people who have never experienced abuse won’t understand how kids can love their tormentors and wish to protect them.
Still, they speak. And they tell their stories so meticulously — Reed backing them up with photos, notes, faxes, video, and audio, all confirming the intent of Jackson’s attentions — that only the most cultish Jackson loyalist could come away thinking there’s no fire in all that smoke. Safechuck says he and Jackson called each other “apple head,” and we hear Jackson calling him that on an answering-machine message. Robson — an Australian-born choreographer whose mom moved the family to L.A. so her boy could study with Jackson and appear in his music videos — says the pop star nicknamed him “little one.” We see a handwritten note from Jackson to Safechuck’s mother instructing her to “tell little one to read my messages every night before sleeping.” Then Safechuck tells us Jackson composed him a song with that title, and sings it to us in a warm, reassuring, distinctively breathy voice — Jackson’s voice: “Has anyone seen my little one? / My little one is here.”
How many little ones were there? Jackson’s estate, which is suing HBO for $100 million for co-producing this documentary, insists there were none. But Robson and Safechuck describe regular parties at Jackson’s Century City apartment involving groups of boys, some old enough to drive, others too young for roller coasters. They say Jackson gave them alcohol and drugs and porn, then invited select minors into his bedroom or bathroom. A 2004 Vanity Fair piece by Maureen Orth included an anecdote about 13-year-old cancer patient Gavin Arvizo, who said Jackson gave him wine hidden in Coke cans during a flight from Florida, in plain view of the boy’s mother. In 2003, Jackson was indicted for intoxicating and molesting Arvizo, as well as conspiring to commit child abduction and kidnapping and threatening the boy’s family. He was ultimately found not guilty of all charges, thanks to a lack of physical evidence and testimony by other boys in his orbit, including Robson and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin. The first molestation scandal happened in 1993, a decade after the release of Jackson’s Thriller, still the top-selling album of all time. The father of another of the singer’s companions, Jordan “Jordy” Chandler, threatened to go public with allegations that Jackson was molesting his son. Jackson settled with the family for $23 million the day before Jackson was to be deposed in a criminal investigation. It was said that Jackson’s camp cut a check after Jordy made a drawing identifying distinctive marks on the singer’s genitals.
Where were the parents in all of this? We hear this question any time Jackson’s penchant for surrounding himself with young boys is discussed, and it’s not invalid. The self-described stage mothers of Safechuck and Robson accept responsibility for endangering their boys by letting them stay overnight with Jackson while rejecting the worst stories about him, even though anyone who’s lived on the earth with open eyes and ears knows that sexually healthy adult men don’t surround themselves with harems of preadolescent boys and urge their parents to get lost. Wade’s mother Joy admits she relocated the Robson family to Los Angeles partly because her marriage was failing and she wanted to start over with Jackson’s help. “I have to take some of the blame for this,” she recalls telling Wade. “I’m your mother and I didn’t protect you.”
At the same time, Leaving Neverland indicts the viewer as another type of absent parent — and it’s here that the specific narrative of Michael Jackson, musical genius and accused pedophile, intersects with the larger narrative of #MeToo in all its permutations. The film keeps cutting back to images of Safechuck and Robson as young men — as boys — wordlessly underscoring the willful, collective obliviousness and celebrity worship that allowed Jackson to parade about in public like a spangled Pied Piper, surrounding himself with underage worshipers, even publicly confirming that he had slumber parties with them, without instantly triggering the alarm bells of community standards. Jackson, it seems, got away with it for the same reason that R. Kelly got away with abusing underage girls over several decades; and for the same reason Harvey Weinstein’s career endured for 20 years after tales of casting couches and worse started circulating; and for the same reason that Donald Trump occupies the nation’s highest office, despite being accused by 19 women of nonconsensual sexual harassment, kissing, and groping since the 1980s, plus a (disavowed) accusation of brutal rape by his first wife, Ivana Trump. These men got away with it because their followers did the moral and emotional calculus and decided that whatever they were getting out of their relationship with the accused — whether it was money from a business arrangement or the adrenaline rush of identification — was more important than multiple, consistent accusations that their hero was a threat.
“It’s all a big seduction,” Safechuck says, describing Jackson’s ability to charm his way past parents’ protective instincts. We see similar seductions playing out year after year, in Olympic programs and Catholic dioceses, at Pixar and Amazon, in Hollywood and Washington and Wall Street and Silicon Valley, in the homes of relatives and friends. And much of the time, we don’t say or do anything to halt it. Or we make big plans and then choke. Some of us choke for reasons of self-interest or cowardice (Bryan Singer, the predator of underage teenage boys who co-directed Bohemian Rhapsody, only recently lost his lucrative follow-up gig). The rest of us choke because we just don’t want to believe another person could be that awful, and the only way to deny that possibility and still look in the mirror is to reconnect with our own inner child and tell ourselves another kind of fairy tale, like, That talented man who invites children to sleep unaccompanied at his ranch is too sweet and innocent to be a pedophile.
In Leaving Neverland, Safechuck and Robson’s narratives are woven together by drone images of Southern California. The majestic gliding rhythm of the shots evokes the flights in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The documentary’s title resonates on multiple levels. Michael Jackson, it suggests, stole boys from the Neverlands of presexual existence. And now two of his victims have chosen to leave the Neverland where they’ve been locked away, remaining loyal to an abuser in part because they felt irrationally responsible for their own degradation, and feared that revealing his sickness would shame them. “They say times heals all wounds,” Safechuck tells us. “But I don’t think time heals this one. It just gets worse.” To watch this film is to contemplate our own Neverlands — especially the paradisiacal fandom zones where adults wallow in the pleasures of nostalgia, roused to fury only by the thought that their hero might be less than heroic. To prioritize our own comfort over others’ pain is to choose Neverland. Time to grow up.