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Even with its limited scope, Leaving Neverland is a harrowing watch

Michael Jackson and Wade Robson
Photo: HBO
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Leaving Neverland is not a Michael Jackson documentary, though the late icon casts a long shadow over the latest from documentary maker Dan Reed, appearing in archival news and tour footage, as well as photos taken with Wade Robson and James Safechuck. It’s Robson and Safechuck who are the primary subjects of Reed’s focus, relating over the four-hour runtime their allegations of sexual abuse against Jackson, whom they first met when they were 5 and 9, respectively.

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The documentary stunned the audience in its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last month; festival organizers even had healthcare professionals on hand at the screening to assist anyone who was triggered by its subject matter. Some dispatches out of Sundance described audience members as looking “slightly dazed” during the intermission. Leaving Neverland is currently scheduled to air over two nights on HBO in early March, and viewers are bound to be grateful for the lengthier respite in between—Reed’s ensured this is a harrowing watch, the soaring orchestral score from Chad Hobson providing a jarring counterpoint to Robson and Safechuck’s graphic accounts of the abuse they say they suffered from Jackson over several years. If any production ever necessitated built-in breaks, it’s this one.

Ahead of the cable premiere, Reed has been adamant that he wasn’t seeking to recreate the timelines put forth by Robson and Safechuck in their entirety, or otherwise litigate the allegations made against Jackson—including the accusations made by Gavin Arvizo, which led to a trial in 2004 and a subsequent acquittal in 2005 for the embattled pop star—in the court of public opinion. In various interviews, the director has said that while he did speak to prosecutors and detectives in an effort to understand Robson’s and Safechuck’s stories, he decided that the “really extraordinary thing” to emerge from all that research was how entire families can be seduced by fame and power. As the director told Vice, he never had the chance to interview Jackson and had little familiarity with his music, but after he started filming Robson and Safechuck in February 2017, he grew fascinated with “the picture [Robson and Safechuck] draw of the grooming sexual predator. And because that story involves Michael Jackson it will have an incredible reach. And that will bring to light some really important facts about how child sexual abuse does happen. It’s not how people imagine.”

Michael Jackson and James Safechuck
Photo: Dave Hogan (Getty Images)

Leaving Neverland colors in that picture with archival footage and photos; an abundance of drone shots of Safechuck’s hometown of Simi Valley and Robson’s native Brisbane, as well as other pertinent locales like Jackson’s Hayvenhurst and Neverland abodes, where the alleged abuse occurred; and hours of talking heads with members of Robson’s and Safechuck’s families, including their spouses. The similarities in their stories become clearer and more disconcerting as the documentary unfolds: Both say Jackson was first impressed by their dance moves, and offered tutelage as well as companionship and lavish gifts. They both allege that, in return, Jackson engaged in or requested oral sex and mutual masturbation, and as they got older, penetrative sex. The men begin the hours’ worth of interviews with different demeanors—Safechuck is shy and nervous, while Robson’s career as an internationally known choreographer leaves him much more poised—but by the end, they share a haunted look and struggle to even get out the words.

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It’s undeniably upsetting, but Reed and editor Jules Cornell—who deftly weaves together Robson’s and Safechuck’s stories and without a sense of repetition—offer breathers via those frequent aerial views. After Robson makes a jolting opening statement in which he calls Jackson one of the greatest artists of all time then adds that he was molested by him for seven years, we’re eased into the boys’ first brushes with pop music. Reed sits down with Robson’s older siblings and his mother, Joy, who moved her youngest children from Australia to Los Angeles to further Robson’s career as a dancer. Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie, offers vital background about the many trips to Neverland, and all the time her son James spent, often alone, with Jackson. In doing so, Leaving Neverland also offers unvarnished looks at these self-described “stage mothers” who admit to being starstruck by Jackson. They say they enjoyed the attention and gifts as much as their children did, adding another piece to Reed’s “seduction of an entire family” puzzle.

The second part of Leaving Neverland begins to reckon more directly with the effects of sexual abuse, both in survivors and their families, as well as the molestation allegations brought against Jackson in 1993 by the Chandler family (for which he was never charged, but did settle out of court in a related civil suit) and in 2003 by the Arvizo family. It doesn’t get any easier to watch, especially not when Robson and Safechuck talk about how becoming fathers made them realize just how vulnerable children are. In gut-wrenching interviews, Robson and Safechuck also address their change in stance, from publicly supporting Jackson when he was accused in 1993 of similar acts to these current disclosures; they speak compellingly of fear and misplaced affection. But Reed doesn’t delve into the civil suits they brought against the Jackson estate after the singer’s death—which were dismissed on technicalities related to statutes of limitations, not credibility.

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The documentary maker’s credulity is valiant, but it also prevents Leaving Neverland from achieving the same scope as his other works like Three Days Of Terror (another HBO production) or his Emmy-nominated documentary, Terror In Mumbai, which pieced together the story of the November 2008 bombing in Mumbai, India with accounts from the victims and the perpetrators themselves, CCTV footage, and previously unheard telephone calls among the terrorists. Obviously, the Jackson family and estate were never going to cooperate with Reed; they not only decried the film ahead of its premiere, but they’re now also, as of this writing, suing HBO for airing it. Still, it’s difficult not to feel that, even after four hours, Robson and Safechuck haven’t had their full say.

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