Leaving Neverland (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A sobering allegation of sexual abuse

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HBO documentary film “Leaving Neverland” gave me a number of sobering moments I will easily not forget for a while. As listening to two men who were allegedly abused and molested in sexual ways by Michael Jackson when they were just young and innocent boys idolizing and trusting him, the documentary makes a very convincing argument on Jackson’s supposedly darker side hidden behind his larger-than-life artistic career, and his music and dance may look never feel same to you once you experience those gut-chilling moments in this unforgettable documentary.

Divided into two parts, the first part of the documentary mainly focuses on how Wade Robson and James Safechuck happened to encounter Jackson respectively around the late 1980s. Around that time, Robson was a young little boy living in Brisbane, Australia who had shown considerable talent in dancing since he became a big fan of Jackson after watching his music video “Thriller”, and he was enthusiastically supported by his family. Thanks to his mother Joy, he came to participate in a special dance competition held before the upcoming Jackson’s concert in Australia, and he not only won the grand prize but also got the opportunity of meeting Jackson and then dancing on the stage along with him.

Jackson subsequently showed more interest and affection to young Robson, who was certainly excited to be closer to his personal hero. He and his family were subsequently invited to California by Jackson, and they soon found themselves staying along with Jackson longer than expected. Seemingly willing to do more for promoting young Robson’s growing talent and potential, Jackson suggested that young Robson should move to US for his future career, and Joy eventually decided to do what she thought was the best for her son, though that decision of hers led to a very painful moment for her family.

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She would have thought twice about that if she had come to have suspicion on Jackson’s unusual behaviors with her son. Merely looking like a gentle man-child who never had a normal childhood, Jackson often wanted to sleep along with young Robson, and Joy let that happen as, like many other people, impressed a lot by his fancy luxurious world mainly represented by Neverland Ranch, which was virtually a big playground for him and many children he invited.

Robson recounts in detail what occurred between him and Jackson whenever they happened to be alone in his private places. To be frank with you, I still feel sick as remembering those depraved acts of sexual abuse described by Robson, and I assure you that you will be more chilled and horrified as listening to Robson recollecting how he still regarded Jackson as his best friend even after that point while emotionally manipulated by Jackson.

In the meantime, Safechuck, who met Jackson via his Pepsi-Cola commercial when he was a young little boy living in California, tells us a story not so different from Robson’s. Like young Robson, young Safechuck was quickly drawn into Jackson’s world after their first encounter, and, like Robson’s parents, his parents were quite excited when Jackson showed a special interest to their dear son and seemed to be very eager to help his future career.

Safechuck also gives us a vivid, horrifying account of what happened between him and Jackson whenever there was no one around them, which certainly overlaps a lot with Robson’s testimony. Even when they were eventually pushed away from Jackson later, Robson and Safechuck still felt emotionally attached to Jackson, and they even testified for him when he was accused of sexually molesting a 13-year old boy in 1993.

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The second part of the documentary is less shocking and devastating in comparison, but it is equally harrowing as we hear about how Robson and Safechuck have struggled to face and deal with their damaged status during last two decades. Around the time when Jackson was accused again of sexually molesting a minor, Safechuck finally spoke a bit to his mother about what Jackson did to him, but he did not want to go further from that, and he also refused to give a testimony for Jackson. Robson, who eventually became a prominent choreographer who worked with Britney Spears and NSYNC, willingly testified for Jackson again in contrast, but he felt more uncomfortable than before, and that affected a lot his career as well as his private life.

When they became fathers later, Robson and Safechuck were eventually able to recognize and confront their dark past, and they came forward in public with their allegations several years after Jackson’s death in 2009, but, as shown around the end of the documentary, they soon found themselves ridiculed and insulted by many fans of Michael Jackson around the world. As a matter of the fact, the documentary itself has drawn lots of ire from those people as well as the Jackson estate, and I was not so surprised to learn that a documentary questioning the veracity of Robson and Safechuck’s allegations will come out in the next month.

On the whole, “Leaving Neverland” did its job as much as intended during its 4-hour running time, and director/producer Dan Reed presents Robson and Safechuck’s stories with admirable restraint and earnestness. While some of you may have reasonable doubt on their allegations, I think we really need to listen to Robson and Safechuck anyway, and that is why you should watch this documentary right now.

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