Leaving Neverland will change what you think about Michael Jackson forever
And not in a good way. Sorry.
Michael Jackson first faced accusations of child sex abuse in 1993.
Dentist Evan Chandler alleged that the singer abused his 13-year-old son, Jordan, making headlines around the world, but the case was settled out of court in January 1994.
Nearly a decade later, in 2003, Jackson was charged with seven counts of child molestation and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent, in relation to a 13-year-old boy featured in the notorious Martin Bashir-fronted documentary, Living With Michael Jackson. But in 2005, he was acquitted on all counts.
On June 25th, 2009, Michael Jackson died of a cardiac arrest, aged 50, having never been convicted of any child abuse charge.
Now, nearly a decade after his death, a powerful, draining, and vital near-four-hour documentary has thrust the uncomfortable doubt of the King of Pop’s innocence firmly back into the zeitgeist.
Originally debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and airing on US and UK TV in March, Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me tells the story of Wade Robson and James Safechuck - two men who say Jackson abused them as young boys - and the impact that alleged abuse that they suffered at his hands has had on both of their lives.
The film lays out a pattern of abuse through the two men’s strikingly similar stories. Safechuck was a child actor who starred alongside Jackson in a Pepsi commercial in the mid 1980s. Jackson soon took a shine to Safechuck, inviting his family on tour with him and eventually having him sleep in the same bed as the adult star. It was then, Safechuck claims, that Jackson began a period of abuse that lasted years.
On the other side of the world was Australian-born Robson, a childhood Jackson fanatic who got onto his idol’s radar after winning a dance competition aged just five. When his dance group went to the US several years later, Jackson invited his family to stay at the Neverland Ranch – with Robson staying in Jackson’s room while his parents were separated off into a different building. Like Safechuck, this is when Robson says that the abuse began.
Ultimately, what makes Leaving Neverland such a powerful experience is that it is not, at its heart, a film about Michael Jackson. It is a film about Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two survivors of child abuse; the alleged abuser just happens to be the most famous pop star of all time.
The film did not start out like this. Veteran BAFTA-winning documentary maker Dan Reed originally intended to make something much more general about the allegations against Jackson – and on a wet Monday morning in London, he describes ‘was Michael Jackson a paedophile?’ as one of the “big questions that no one knew the answer to.”
He started out researching the two cases, speaking to LAPD and Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department investigators who were part of the 1993 civil trial and criminal investigation, “none of whom had any doubt about Jackson’s guilt”, Reed adds. He read a huge amount of documents and statements from the Jackson staff.
But after about a month, he says he came across Wade Robson and James Safechuck. In 2013, after years of denial, Robson filed a $1.5 billion civil lawsuit against Jackson for child sexual abuse, which Safechuck joined after seeing Robson speak on TV. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2017, but Reed contacted their lawyers and his film found its subjects.
“In the process of editing, we realised that when you had the boys talking, and their mums, and their siblings and wives, it was this amazing story of two families going on this incredible journey over two decades,” says Reed.
“In spite of all [the research I had done] I ended up telling the stories of the families because this was coming from the horse’s mouth. Here are the children who were in the room, behind closed doors. There was only two people in that room, and one of them is dead.”
“I feel very lucky I’ve been the one to do this. I know that they’ve been approached by various media but no documentary makers, and I don’t understand why.”
Michael Jackson has long been a controversial figure, but since his death, history has been written to paint his life as an ultimately tragic tale. A troubled upbringing where he suffered mental and physical abuse, groomed for superstardom and never allowed to have a real childhood. A fragile Peter Pan figure, who died a bleak, surreal death.
Sure, his friendships with young boys were inappropriate, but it is a commonly held view that they were the actions of a naïve, fractured man, who didn’t understand social norms. In the words of Scroobius Pip: “Thou shalt not think that any male over the age of 30 that plays with a child that is not their own is a paedophile. Some people are just nice.”
Leaving Neverland shatters any of those preconceptions. It portrays Jackson, not as a fragile man-child, but as a cynical, evil manipulator, one who knew exactly what he was doing. The families of Safechuck and Robson appear as manipulated as his alleged victims, with Jackson gaining their trust and letting them taste the jet-set lifestyle, while he was left to prey on their children.
The film recalls the current Netflix hit Abducted In Plain Sight, the stranger-than-fiction documentary about an Idaho family manipulated by their paedophile neighbour. Many viewers will feel physically exasperated as Safechuck and Robson’s parents allow them to sleep in Jackson’s room unsupervised, but the film sensitively allows them a platform to admit both their mistakes and guilt.
At its most basic level, Reed’s film lets Safechuck and Robson tell their story. It is nearly half an hour in before any mention of the alleged abuse comes up. We get to see to see the incredible lives that the two boys and their families got to live, thanks to Jackson. The private jets. The shopping sprees. Dancing on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans. The priceless access to the entertainment industry. It all seems like a fairytale.
And then it comes. The alleged abuse begins and Safechuck and Robson calmly explain Jackson's alleged actions in plain, graphic detail. It is a long, hard, difficult watch, hearing the sort of thing none of us would ever want to visualise.
The film stays with the families, however, as they lose contact with Jackson and past the singer’s death. This is its real power – that it truly lets you understand the life-changing and long-lasting effects of child abuse. Safechuck and Robson were too young to understand what was allegedly being done to them - Robson even testified for Jackson’s defence at the 2005 trial. It took until deep into adulthood for them to fully comprehend the impact Jackson had on them.
Many will understandably question why the duo have come forward now, after publicly denying other allegations against Jackson and defending him for so long. But whatever your personal view of Michael Jackson, the film’s true achievement is making the viewer understand how someone could lie to themselves for so long.
The timing of Leaving Neverland’s release seems very apt. The Me Too movement has just reached the music industry. R Kelly is facing ten counts of sexual abuse, in the wake of Lifetime’s similar Surviving R Kelly documentary (he has denied the charges). It would seem like exactly the sort of climate that might inspire a re-examination of the allegations against Jackson.
But Dan Reed says that the film first entered pre-production three years ago, before the downfalls of figures like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and the timing is just a coincidence. He does, however, point to Jimmy Savile, and the claims of mass sexual abuse that came out in 2012 against him, a year after the DJ’s death.
“Savile did inform this because I realised that you could have this guy who was celebrated, and worshipped by everybody,” Reed explains. “And suddenly he turns out to be a monster.
“That pivot happens on the basis of one person’s testimony. So it is possible for no one to say anything, for people to be dismissed and the story to be covered up for years and years, and that person to die. And eventually for one person to have the courage to come out, and the damn breaks and everyone comes forward.”
Reed talks about the machinery that can protect a megastar like Jackson or Savile. With the amount of people surrounding them – all the paid staff, the hangers-on – you think that if something was going on, someone would surely talk eventually?
“People did come out, and did speak to the press actually,” Reed says, of the 1993 allegations. “The thing is a lot the testimony by members of the Jackson household was tainted by the fact that it was paid for by the media – often the British tabloid media – and was generally spun by the Jackson camp to appear to be as if it was to do with making money off the back of Jackson. It was part and parcel of the narrative that the children were just saying this to make money from Michael Jackson.”
There have been plenty of defenders of Jackson. Several other men who were befriended by him as young boys staunchly maintain that the singer never did anything wrong during their notorious ‘sleepovers’, including the actor Macaulay Culkin and long-time Jackson defender Brett Barnes.
While not dismissing their testimonies, Reed is unconvinced by them. “The fact that nothing happened with Macaulay or Bret, if that’s the case, doesn’t mean that Wade and James were not molested,” he says. “If you were making a film about a murderer, you can find plenty of people who weren’t murdered to interview. But the point is they did murder people.”
Throughout the film, we get little snatches of Jackson’s music. It is filled with unseen home movies and photos from the Robson and Safechuck families. There will be a little bit of ‘Beat It’ or “Billie Jean’ or ‘Smooth Criminal’, on a camcorder recording of a dance rehearsal or a live performance. And despite the horrible things you are hearing about the man behind the music, those songs are so good you still unconsciously find yourself tapping your feet. The big difference between Savile and Jackson is that no one is still watching reruns of Jim’ll Fix It. Erasing him from our culture is no great loss.
That’s what makes the film so hard to grapple with. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, Michael Jackson is dead. If the claims are true, he got away with it. We cannot change the past and the chance to protect his alleged victims has long since passed. The decision on whether to ‘cancel’ Michael Jackson - to banish his music from barbecues and wedding discos and erase him from history - will be made collectively and amorphously by all of us, as a society. All Leaving Neverland does is let two men tell their own stories. And it is very hard not to be profoundly moved by them.
Then again, the next time you hear that familiar bassline of ‘Billie Jean’, you might choose to ignore your outrage and anger. You might tell yourself that Michael Jackson was never convicted of anything. You might find it easier to think that Wade Robson and James Safechuck and all the others are just money-hungry liars. Lord knows, a lot of people have picked the easier option and kept dancing.
Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me airs on Channel 4 over two nights, on Wednesday 6th and Thursday 7th March. It is also available via on-demand on All 4.