The curtain has been pulled back on the personal life of Michael Jackson — and what’s exposed is a pop star that used his fame to prey upon young, impressionable boys. That’s the big takeaway of the gripping and explosive documentary Leaving Neverland, which premiered January 25 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
In the two-part, 236-minute-long film, Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 42, — along with their grief-stricken families — detail how they individually befriended Jackson around the Bad period of his career in the mid-to-late 1980s. Soon, they allege, Jackson sexually abused them during separate sleepovers inside his palatial Neverland Ranch. They claim the abuse went on for several years, and they were sworn to secrecy. And though Jackson was taken to court in 1993 and a decade later for assaulting a minor, he convinced both men to testify on his behalf. Jackson settled the case in 1994; he was found not guilty in 2005. (Jackson died in 2009 at age 50.)
Robson, a famed choreographer who once worked with the likes of Britney Spears and ‘NSync, as well as Safechuck, a former musician, were both greeted with a standing ovation at the end of the premiere. “I understand why it’s so hard for [fans] to believe it,” a soft-spoken Robson said at the post-screening Q&A. “We can only accept and understand something when we’re ready.”
Here are five of the most shocking revelations from Leaving Neverland. Please note: The sexual details in the film are so graphic that licensed counselors from Utah were on-hand in the lobby. (They’re toned down a bit here.)
1. The Abuse Started at an Early Age
Robson was a kid dancer and star Michael Jackson impersonator in his native Australia when he and his family met the singer backstage at a concert in Brisbane. In 1990, the Robson family reconnected with him during a vacation in L.A. He and Robson, then just 7, formed an instant bond and he convinced Robson’s mom to let the boy stay over alone while the rest of the family visited the Grand Canyon. That night, per Robson, Jackson performed oral sex on him and put his tongue in his mouth. “He said ‘This is how we show our love,’” Robson says of Jackson. Safechuck, meanwhile, met Jackson when he filmed a Pepsi commercial with him in 1986. An enamored Jackson soon took Safechuck and his family on tour with him. Sleepovers at Neverland allegedly turned into graphic sexual encounters. Safechuck, then 10, says Jackson initially showed him how to masturbate. The abuse escalated from there.
2. Jackson Gave Safechuck a Wedding Ring and Said They Were Married
Speaking matter-of-factly, Safechuck claims that he and Jackson once had a mock wedding ceremony, complete with exchanged vows. Jackson even gave him a ring with a row of encrusted diamonds. During this segment of Leaving Neverland, Safechuck’s hands shake as he takes the ring out of a jewelry box and claims that the star often rewarded him with jewelry in exchange for sexual acts. “It’s still hard for me to not blame myself,” he says. Safechuck also alleges that after Jackson settled the case in 1993, he told his friend that he was going to be involved in public relationships with women but “they wouldn’t mean anything.” He married Lisa Marie Presley in 1994 and Debbie Rowe in 1996.
3. Macaulay Culkin Came Between Jackson and Robson
Robson and his family say that Jackson persuaded them to move from Australia to Los Angeles in 1991 by offering to pay for their lavish expenses. But as soon as they uprooted, Jackson began to give them the cold shoulder. When Robson arrived to the set of the video for “Black and White,” he realized why: Macaulay Culkin — then hot off the success of Home Alone — was now the center of MJ’s attention. “Now I was on the sidelines,” he recalls. “It was very confusing.” But when Jackson was mired in his lawsuit in 1993, he refocused on Robson to ensure that he would testify on his behalf and deny all charges. Robson complied. After the settlement, Robson claims Jackson anally penetrated him for the first time. He was 14. It would be their last sexual encounter.
4. Jackson Coerced Them into Lying
Even as a 10-year-old, Safechuck says that Jackson had them do “emergency drills” and get dressed in case someone approached the bedroom while they were in a compromising position. At Neverland, they allegedly had sex in closed-off areas such as a toy-strewn attic, tee-pees on the lawn and a game room. If he told anyone of the acts, he says, then Jackson told him “his life would be over and my life would over.” Safechuck would go on to deny any wrongdoings for more than a decade, until he opened up to his mother and his wife. Jackson used the same threats with Robson, telling him that if he revealed anything defamatory, he would go to jail for the rest of his life. Robson explains this as a reason as to why he testified in Jackson’s defense, noting that he never repressed the two’s sexual activities.
5. Jackson’s Behavior Changed Dramatically Before His Death
Despite the claims of abuse, Robson says he and Jackson stayed good friends until his death in 2009. But their last get-together in late 2008 — in Las Vegas, where Robson was working as a choreographer and Jackson was visiting — showed evidence that Jackson was in decline. Jackson had stopped by Robson’s house with his three children, Prince Michael, Paris and “Blanket.” Robson said that Jackson immediately filled a red plastic cup to the brim with red wine, even though he had never seen Jackson, a Jehovah’s Witness, drink alcohol. He drank it all and then refilled his cup. Then, Robson says, Jackson announced he was going upstairs for a bit. He didn’t come down the rest of the night. Most perplexing, per Robson, was that his three kids seemed nonplussed by their dad’s actions. Robson never saw him again. As for Safechuck? He refused to testify for Jackson in the 2005 trial. Still, he says Jackson did call him and promise that he’d help ignite his budding directing career. Safechuck rejected the offer. They never spoke again.
Leaving Neverland, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, airs on HBO on Sunday, March 3, and Monday, March 4.
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