In four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland, two men tell of being abused as children by global pop icon Michael Jackson.
By way of a trigger warning, when the four-hour documentary screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, counsellors were available for audience members.
The film, which screens over two nights, features the testimonies of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who explain in detail how as children they were groomed and abused by Jackson.
Director Dan Reed, whose credits include Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks and Terror in Mumbai, also examines the psychology of child abuse and interviews the men’s mothers, who are, of course, deeply regretful.
But Jackson’s near-divine status is another thread that the documentary pulls. No one imagined that the global pop icon, who entertained millions and whose Thriller is still the best-selling album of all time, could be doing anything wrong.
Never mind that he lavished gifts and travel on the families, that he took Safechuck on tour and held a mock wedding between them (Safechuck still has the ring), or that he took both boys back to stay at his Neverland ranch.
At one point, Jackson asked Robson’s mum if he could keep Wade for a year and, although she refused, she moved with Wade and his sister to Los Angeles.
It seems unthinkable now, but Reed has called out the cult of celebrity, telling the BBC that it is “pernicious and it leads people to go blind and parents to do stupid things”.
Reed spent a lot of time examining the legal actions taken in 1993 and 2004 against Jackson by Jordan Chandler and Gavin Arvizo and, no doubt mindful of the weight of the revelations, he also worked for a long time to corroborate Robson and Safechuck’s stories.
“There’s a huge amount of work we did over two years to try to test everything that they said, and I never found anything that cast any doubt.”
Nevertheless, the Jackson estate denies there was any wrongdoing and, although it cannot sue for defamation, it has found a way into legal action by suing HBO for a breach in a non-disparagement clause in an old contract.
Reed says the documentary is not about “digging up Michael Jackson”.
“What we’re doing is telling the stories of two victims, and they’re very much alive and well. They deserve to have their say and to be heard.”
This article was first published in the March 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.