Such are the horrific allegations in the new Michael Jackson documentary, Leaving Neverland, that cinemagoers at its premiere at Sundance Film Festival last week were warned beforehand that the work contained disturbing descriptions of sexual abuse and that mental-health professionals would be available immediately after the screening for viewers distressed by what they had seen.
Leaving Neverland is a four-hour film that focuses on the accounts of two men who allege they endured sexual abuse by the late pop star when they were children. It is the graphic and detailed nature of these allegations that gives Leaving Neverland its dramatic impact. The documentary describes, in the two men’s words, numerous incidents of masturbation, oral sex and anal sex over a number of years in the 1980s and 1990s.
The singer’s family have labelled the documentary an outrageous attempt to cash in on Michael Jackson
The Jackson family have labelled the documentary “yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson” and pointed out that “the two men have previously testified under oath that these actions never occurred”.
Leaving Neverland will be shown on Channel 4 in the early spring. Some who attended the premiere at Sundance said they had never experienced such shock and horror at a film screening.
Critical reaction has been divided. Some feel it is such a damning indictment of Jackson that his legacy is forever tainted – if not completely destroyed. The Guardian wrote: “It only takes about two minutes into Leaving Neverland to realize that Michael Jackson’s legacy is never going to be the same again.”
Others view it as a biased and emotionally manipulative hit piece, and question the motives of the two men. They point out, like the Jackson family, that the accusers had previously testified that Jackson never abused them.
What Leaving Neverland does is to bring Jackson into today’s larger conversation about sexual misconduct and abuse. Many high-profile figures have been exposed in recent years, and we now have a better understanding of the complex reasons why people take years after the event to report sexual abuse.
A child star
Michael Jackson was a child star who didn’t have a childhood. Fast-tracked into the family business, he was the star turn of The Jacksons, quickly outshining his brothers in the group, and singled out for stardom at an early age.
In later years he would talk about the unending pressure of the childhood-pop-star life – constant practices, rehearsals and performances – and how his father had physically and verbally abused him.
By the time he was 10 Rolling Stone magazine had already written about “this child’s piping voice, grown-up hoofer and vocal inflections similar to Sam Cooke, James Brown, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder’s”.
His later solo career would irrevocably change the face of pop music. His album Thriller, released in 1982, was an artful fusion of musical stylings, every track a hit single, that went on to become the biggest-selling album of all time, with more than 100 million copies sold.
His performance at a tribute to the Tamla Motown record label in 1983 is regarded as one of the most stunning and electrifying pieces of music television.
Jackson was the most famous musical performer since Elvis Presley, and as his fame grew his behaviour deteriorated
With his face on the cover of every music magazine, Jackson quickly developed a self-consciousness about his appearance. He went under the surgeon’s knife to have his nose altered and followed up with various “corrective” surgeries to the extent that he soon became unrecognisable from how he appeared on the cover of Thriller.
Vitiligo, a pigmentation disorder that caused his skin to form white patches, gave him a bizarre, ghostly look.
Jackson was the most famous musical performer since Elvis Presley, and as his fame grew his behaviour deteriorated. He lived in a glorified amusement park, spoke in an unnatural squeaky child’s voice and became so distrustful of adults that he surrounded himself with children.
His first marriage, to Elvis Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie, lasted no longer than the honeymoon. He went on to marry a nurse, Debbie Rowe, with whom he had a son and a daughter. After their divorce he had another son, but he never revealed who the mother of his third child was.
The accusations over the years of child molestation, which he always strenuously denied, led to the addiction to painkillers that contributed to his death, aged 50, in 2009.
The new allegations
Leaving Neverland is not just about new allegations of sexual impropriety by Jackson; it is about the mental journey of his two accusers and what has happened in the 20 or so years since they claim the abuse took place and when they first reported it.
James Safechuck, who is now 42, was nine when he appeared alongside Jackson in a 1986 advertisement for Pepsi cola. Jackson became friendly with the whole Safechuck family, inviting them to go on tour with him. When he was 10, Safechuck alleges, Jackson sexually abused him when they were sharing a hotel bedroom. The abuse, he alleges, continued at Jackson’s Neverland mansion, in California. The details he provides are as upsetting as they are chilling.
Wade Robson, who is now 36, met Jackson when he was five, after winning a Michael Jackson dancealike competition. Robson says he and his family were invited to stay at Neverland, where, he alleges, he was sexually abused by Jackson between the ages of seven and 14.
Robson says that Jackson persuaded his mother that it was safe to leave the child with him and that the singer would reward him with jewellery after sexually abusing him. The two, Robson claims, even participated in a mock wedding. Safechuck and Robson say Jackson introduced them to hard-core pornography and alcohol.
Both men say they were discarded soon after they hit puberty, as Jackson’s attentions turned elsewhere. Yet all remained on friendly terms. In 1993, not long after the alleged abuse of both men had stopped, Jackson was accused of sexual abuse by a 13-year-old boy, Jordan Chandler. Police investigators interviewed Safechuck and Robson, but both denied they had been abused.
No charges were filed against Jackson in the 1993 case. In an out-of-court settlement Jackson paid the Chandler family $22 million, saying: “I reluctantly chose to settle the false claims only to end the terrible publicity and to continue with my life and career.”
In 2005 Jackson was charged with molesting another 13-year-old boy, Gavin Arvizo.
Robson, then 21, appeared as a character witness for Jackson’s defence team. Under oath he said he had never been molested by Jackson: “I can tell you right now that if he had I wouldn’t be here right now.” Asked if had ever been touched by Jackson in a sexual way, he replied: “Never. I wouldn’t stand for it.”
Jackson was found not guilty on all charges in the Gavin Arvizo case.
Escape to Westmeath
After his acquittal in the 2005 case Jackson and his family left the United States to find a permanent home abroad. They travelled first to Bahrain and then, remarkably, after that proved unsuitable, to the town of Moate, in Co Westmeath.
Jackson, his two sons, Prince Michael jnr and Blanket, and his daughter, Paris – along with a slimmed-down entourage of a nanny and a tutor – set up home in the residential Grouse Lodge recording studio, living in a three-bedroom cottage that had been converted from a cowshed.
If ever he was spotted out and about, people would be ridiculed for saying they had just seen Michael Jackson in a shop in Moate
Jackson fell in love with Westmeath, often walking alone in the countryside. After a month living beside the studio he moved to the nearby estate of Coolatore. A local taxi driver, Ray O’Hara, became the family’s full-time driver. It was months before even locals knew Jackson was living in the area, and if ever he was spotted out and about, people would be ridiculed for saying they had just seen Michael Jackson in a shop in Moate.
Members of the Jackson family have since said the six months he spent in Westmeath were among the happiest of his life. By all accounts he particularly enjoyed going to the bowling alley in Tullamore (where the bowling shoes he wore are now on permanent display).
After six months in the Irish countryside Jackson pronounced himself “healed” and returned to the United States.
The trial’s aftermath
The aftermath of the trial was very different for Safechuck and Robson. Both developed psychological problems as they advanced through adulthood. Seven years ago, in sessions with his psychotherapist, Robson first detailed the sexual abuse he says he suffered when with Jackson.
In 2013 both men sued the Jackson estate for the sexual abuse they say they endured. They were seeking millions of dollars in compensation. Their suits were dismissed.
Reviewing Leaving Neverland for Forbes magazine, Joe Vogel, an expert on Jackson’s life and career, condemned the documentary. He says that all the allegations against Jackson over the years have come under intense scrutiny yet, when Neverland was searched, nothing incriminating was found, that the singer was acquitted of all charges in the 2005 trial and that a 300-page FBI file on Jackson, released under freedom-of-information laws, found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Vogel says the film does not hear the voices of hundreds of people who were in close personal contact with Jackson. Those friends, family, collaborators, fellow artists and former spouses, as well as his own children, are all consistent, Vogel says, in describing him as “gentle, brilliant, sensitive, sometimes naive, sometimes childish, sometimes oblivious to perceptions. None believe he was a child molestor”.
The Jackson family say “the documentary is a public lynching, it takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact”. They say its makers interviewed only two “opportunists and perjurers”.
Safechuck and Robson appeared at the Sundance premiere last week; both said they were not paid to take part in the film.
Responding to the criticism of their allegations, Robson said: “I understand that it’s really hard for people to believe, because not long ago I was in the same position. Even though [the abuse] happened to me, I still couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that what Michael did was a bad thing up until six years ago. We can only accept and understand something when we’re ready.”
There are two opposing sides here: the makers of Leaving Neverland have taken a side by giving the two men a platform. The thoroughness with which they detail their allegations is gripping. Critics of the project point to the ways the two men’s stories have changed over the years and the failure of their lawsuit against the Jackson estate.
In the distorted mirror world of infotainment, the publicity around Jackson’s criminal trial ensured his albums re-entered the charts and became hits all over again
Robson says he was “brainwashed” by Jackson and his lawyers into testifying on his behalf during the 2005 trial.
Between all of the accusations and counteraccusations lies the warping effect of a celebrity culture that sees starstruck parents flock to Neverland with their young children. Wealth and fame blind people to the fact that a middle-aged man sharing his bed with a young boy, as the singer admitted in the 2002 Martin Bashir documentary, Living with Michael Jackson, is never healthy.
The psychological scars of sexual abuse, as detailed in Leaving Neverland, are complex and often contradictory in nature.
Leaving Neverland’s director, Dan Reed, said he never doubted the veracity of the two men’s testimonies. “If there’s anything we’ve learned during this time in our history, it’s that sexual abuse is complicated, and survivors’ voices need to be listened to. It took great courage for these two men to tell their stories, and I have no question about their validity. I believe 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.”
A public shouting match
There is now a very public shouting match between those who believe Leaving Neverland and those who view it as a character assassination. The Jackson family have said they plan to bring out their own detailed documentary about the singer’s life, in a rebuttal of Reed’s work.
Leaving Neverland is powerful and shocking. As damning as it is, though, some distance remains between those who believe Jackson was a naive and foolish eccentric and those who believe he was a dangerous and manipulative sexual predator who targeted impressionable boys.
As for Jackson’s legacy, previous accusations of sexual abuse have come and gone without any major impact on his still-healthy record sales. And, of course, Jackson was never convicted of any offence. Perhaps not every television station or streaming service will want to screen Jackson footage after these new and very serious allegations, but his music is unlikely to be pulled from the schedules.
In the distorted mirror world of infotainment, the publicity around Jackson’s criminal trial ensured his albums re-entered the charts and became hits all over again. That is likely to happen, too, as the Leaving Neverland controversy continues to grow.
Consider also that when the singer walked into the courthouse each day to face those child-molestation charges in 2005, dozens of parents surrounded him, all holding up their young children and shouting: “Please take him, Michael. Take him to Neverland with you.”