Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson

The controversial documentary LEAVING NEVERLAND recently had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where among the early critical raves for the documentary, Rolling Stone described it as “hard to watch, tougher to ignore, impossible to forget… a portrait of bravery,” and the Hollywood Reporter called it “harrowing, complicated and heartbreaking,” while Variety hailed the documentary’s “devastatingly powerful and convincing testimony.”

The two-part documentary explores the separate but parallel experiences of two young boys, James “Jimmy” Safechuck, at age ten, and Wade Robson, at age seven, both of whom were befriended by Michael Jackson. They and their families were invited into his wondrous world, entranced by the singer’s fairy-tale existence as his career reached its peak.

Through gut-wrenching interviews with Safechuck, now 37, and Robson, now 41, as well as their mothers, wives and siblings, LEAVING NEVERLAND crafts a portrait of sustained abuse, exploring the complicated feelings that led both men to confront their experiences after both had a young son of their own.

Produced and directed by Dan Reed (HBO’s Emmy(R)-nominated “Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks” and “Terror at the Mall”), the first part of LEAVING NEVERLAND debuts SUNDAY, MARCH 3 (8:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT), followed by the second part the following night, MONDAY, MARCH 4 (8:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

James Safechuck was a child actor from Simi Valley, Calif. In 1986, when he was eight years old, he landed a role in a Pepsi commercial alongside Jackson. Immediately taken by Safechuck, Jackson became a cherished family friend within months.

Wade Robson was an amateur child dancer from Brisbane, Australia. In 1987, the five-year-old was granted the opportunity to meet Jackson backstage at his Brisbane show after winning a dance-alike contest. In 1990, Robson’s mother, Joy, followed up with Jackson, who invited the whole family to his home for the weekend, where their friendship was formed.

Jackson inserted himself into the families’ lives in separate but similar ways. His approach was gentle but deliberate, often manifesting as nothing but affection for the child. He became their most trusted friend, mentor and confidante, separately expressing his love for both boys, while slowly isolating them from their families.

Many of their most salient memories during this time involved visits to Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, just north of Santa Barbara. Both men describe how it was a child’s dreamland filled with games, amusement park rides, exotic animals and an endless supply of candy and junk food.

These visits soon began to include overnight stays, where Jackson would sleep in the same bedroom as his young guests, away from their parents. Both Robson and Safechuck describe how what began as innocent sleepovers led to intimate contact. Robson was seven years old when the abuse started; Safechuck was ten. Soon, as Safechuck recalls painfully, nearly every “special” place at Neverland was marked by a sexual encounter.

In 1991, with Jackson’s encouragement, Robson’s mother moved her son and daughter Chantal to Los Angeles to help advance her son’s career as an entertainer. This decision pulled the family apart, leaving Robson’s father, older brother and grandmother behind in Australia. In the film, Robson’s siblings speak about how distant they became as Jackson grew closer to Robson and their mother.

From the beginning, Jackson impressed upon Robson and Safechuck that they had to keep their sexual contact a secret. Robson recalls believing Jackson when he told him they would both “go to jail for the rest of our lives” if anyone found out.

As both boys reached adolescence, they found they were no longer in the same “privileged” position, no longer the object of Jackson’s seemingly undivided attention. However, they kept their secrets and their loyalty to him, bound by the complicated emotional attachments forged in abuse. In the 1990s, when others accused Jackson of abuse, Safechuck and Robson were urged by Jackson to defend him. Both vehemently denied to their parents and to the public that Jackson had ever been inappropriate with them.

Robson became one of the most successful young choreographers of his generation, working with *NSYNC and Britney Spears at the height of their careers. But his success was tinged with sadness and depression. Safechuck, an aspiring film director and rock musician, also faced bouts of depression and addiction.

Both eventually married and had sons of their own. As their infant sons grew, their emotional turmoil mounted as they struggled to make sense of the past, revealing how the ripples of sexual abuse can manifest themselves decades later.

Finally, facing emotional crises, both men reached a point where they were willing to speak the truth to their family members. In the film, their families describe when Robson and Safechuck opened up for the first time, as they understood the damage that remained long after the physical abuse stopped. Then, they began to confront their trauma, trying to understand their complex memories and heal the fractured relationships within their families. Now, after years of therapy, both men have decided to speak out and tell their stories.

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