I wasn’t fully conscious of how disquieted Leaving Neverland left me until I paused and returned to it after a couple of hours. I stopped watching somewhere around the 1 hour 10 minute mark (not out of any emotional necessity for a break- I was grabbing dinner with friends and heading to the gym for the evening). When I finally returned to my apartment some three hours later, the thought of resuming the film filled me with a vague feeling of dread, not exactly intense but undeniably present. I had never felt this way about a movie before- something in the pit of my stomach told me to stop watching. But I knew I had to finish it.
Dan Reed‘s Leaving Neverland is less a straightforward documentary than a series of dutiful testimonies, fundamentally one-sided in structure but necessarily so. Over its glacially-paced 4-hour runtime, Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck– only two of Michael Jackson‘s many alleged victims- detail their entire life’s history with the legendary pop star alongside their surviving family members, starting at the ecstatic beginning of their relationship with MJ and concluding with the emotional devastation left behind years after his death. The film isn’t quite trying to convince you of its truth, but rather present Wade and Jimmy’s untold stories plainly and without comment. It makes no daring attempt to reckon with the why of it all, instead resolving with a determined humility to focus on the what. As it turns out, that what is wholly deserving of 4 hours of your time.
Wade Robson was a superfan of Michael Jackson ever since he was 7 and his mother brought home a VHS tape of one of his music videos. Michael Jackson was everything to Wade- he spent hours as a child trying to dance like him, to dress like him. He even permed his hair like him, his brother recounts at one point with an air of perplexion. It comes as no surprise that Wade was beyond euphoric to meet and perform with Jackson on one of his 1980s tours of Australia after winning a dance competition in his name. Wade and his mother recall Jackson being extremely friendly and kind, graciously taking time out of his tour to spend with them. They would later follow him on another tour, and only after closely befriending Robson’s entire family would the molestation begin.
Jimmy Safechuck’s story was different in that he wasn’t much of a Michael Jackson fan until he met him during the filming of their Pepsi commercial together at the age of 10. Already living in the Los Angeles area, the Safechucks became close with Michael much easier and faster than the Robsons. Just like with Wade, Jackson took his time to groom the whole family, calling them every day and coming over for dinner often, before finally initiating the abuse.
Their stories of arriving in Michael Jackson’s orbit may differ, but the details of their actual abuse do not. Both Wade and Jimmy describe in abhorrent detail how Jackson began by first introducing them to masturbation, slowly inching his way towards fondling the children himself before adding oral sex into the routine. One of the most horrifying scenes in the entire film finds Jimmy naming and describing each separate room in Jackson’s vast Neverland Ranch where the two would have sexual relations. He compares the frequent molestation to a new couple “going heavy”, fully aware of how twisted such an appalling analogy is, but so ostensibly scarred that the correct vocabulary eludes him.
A considerable portion of the film’s runtime has the victims illustrating the most disgusting specifics of their abuse, from being forced to stare at a cardboard cutout of Peter Pan while Michael masturbated to their spread buttcheeks, to an instance when Jackson nervously told one of the boys (then a teenager) to dispose of his underwear so his mother couldn’t discover the bloodstain evidence that the pop star anally penetrated him. From the very start of the abuse, Jackson would have the boys run drills getting dressed as quickly and as silently as possible. To further safeguard his pedophiliac activities, Jackson also had his own bedroom at the Neverland Ranch equipped with warning bells to prevent the chance of someone sneaking up on him in the middle of sexual relations with a 7-year-old boy.
These unimaginable details are almost too vile for me to willingly type out, but they’re necessary to understand the full extent of what these two men are alleging. And the abuse itself doesn’t even cover the permanent familial damage inflicted by Michael’s grooming. One of the most subtly disturbing sequences in the film follows how Jackson was able to cordially lure Wade’s family across the world from Australia to Los Angeles; Wade’s father, suffering from bipolar disorder and devastated by apparent feelings of abandonment, later hung himself. From the actual abuse to the irreversible corruption of trust, one would expect that everyone deceived by Michael’s web of manipulation would be rightfully enraged while delivering their testimonies, but on the contrary most of them still appear too stunned to do much more than cry.
One wonders while watching Leaving Neverland, and justifiably so, why the parents allowed their children to sleep in the same room, in the same bed, with a stranger they hardly knew. Why didn’t they realize how utterly peculiar it is for a grown man to be spending so much of his time- unsupervised no less- with prepubescent boys? How could they not have guessed something sinister was transpiring right underneath their noses? These are all valid and important questions, and while the film never resolves to directly answer them, both of the mothers admit that they were completely out of their minds, allured by the prospect of friendship with the world’s greatest superstar and the creation of lifetime opportunities for their children.
It’s with this point that Leaving Neverland transcends itself not just as a crucial document of abuse, but as a scathing portrait of the celebrity power complex- the complete, sickening influence that a cult of personality like Michael Jackson is truly capable of wielding. Not only were the victims and their families so starstruck with Michael that their infatuation evolved into a predatory opportunity, but as soon any of them actually spoke out, they were widely met with negative public reactions ranging from skeptical disbelief to zealous hatred. The Robsons and the Safechucks don’t even indicate any ill will towards Michael. Though they have every right and reason to, one gets the sense while listening to their testimonies that they still haven’t quite woken up from the nightmare that enveloped so much of their lives. Whether it was aiming to or not, Leaving Neverland is as much a nauseating exploration of toxic celebrity idolization as it is one of trauma and abuse.
It’s admittedly difficult to recommend something as fundamentally uncomfortable as Leaving Neverland to anyone. Describing the film’s content in only the vaguest of specificities to a friend evoked a predictable reaction of disgust and total aversion to watching it. I don’t blame him. There’s a reason Michael Jackson’s reputation has survived (up until this point at least) while those of so many other celebrated figures have crashed and burned. Michael’s public persona was larger than life, and trampling his legacy with the truth of his monstrous behavior is a notion that clearly upsets many people to the core. Yet ultimately, Leaving Neverland doesn’t even have the malicious motive of ruining Jackson’s memory- at a daunting four hours, one would be hard-pressed to intelligently disregard it as a simple sensationalist hit piece. It will likely ruin Jackson’s image for most who dare watch it, but more than anything it’s a film about listening. Michael Jackson is dead. Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck are alive, and they’re finally telling us their stories. It’s up to us if we want to listen.