“He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew,” Wade Robson says of Michael Jackson at the beginning of part one of HBO’s two-part Leaving Neverland documentary. “And he also sexually abused me, for seven years.”
Premiering on Sunday night (Mar. 3), part one of Leaving Neverland focuses on the stories of two alleged survivors of underage sexual assault at the hands of the biggest pop star of the 20th century in the late ’80s and early ’90s — which ends in 1992, around when both men say Jackson started to pull back on their relationships, and just before abuse allegations against Jackson first became public — and how they’ve had to reconcile those two sides of the man they loved so dearly. (Jackson’s family has firmly denied the allegations of the interview subjects in the film, asserting their stories to be financially motivated.) What really makes their respective accountings of a childhood dominated by this larger-than-life adult so devastating is that while it’s been nearly a decade since Michael Jackson’s death, and a quarter-century since most of his claimed abuse, it still seems impossible for either Robson or James Safechuck — former child performers precocious and talented enough to catch Jackson’s eye as pre-teens — to view those two sides of him separately.
If it wasn’t for that early Robson quote, or the cacophony of buzz that’s surrounded Leaving Neverland‘s pre-release, it wouldn’t be totally clear from part one’s first 40 minutes whether you were watching a fairytale or a horror movie. The quotes from both Robson and Safechuck (as well as their respective families) as they recount meeting Jackson through fortuitous early showbiz encounters, and gradually getting swept up into and seduced by his world of seemingly infinite possibility, still carry the awe of the moment. “How lucky are we?” “We’re the luckiest boys in the world.” “It was a fairytale every night.” These quotes aren’t delivered with apparent bitterness, either: No matter how palpable the irony of the statement (“I remember thinking that no one’s ever gonna believe this,” mother Stephanie Safechuck says of the incredulity of one early visit with Jackson), no one interviewed for Leaving Neverland ever seems to be projecting their own larger commentary onto the film’s narrative. They never lead you into the story’s next chapter — in fact, they often sound like they don’t even totally know the ending yet themselves.
The introduction of sexuality into the story of Jackson’s relationship with these two boys — neither of whom was older than seven when they allege the pop star became physical with them — is most jarring in that it’s given no obvious buildup. There’s no Behind the Music-style narration to explicitly forecast that things are about to take a dramatic turn; there’s no narration in Leaving Neverland at all. There’s no big musical shift, no lingering silence or shots of an interview subject struggling to get the words out. “In Paris, he introduced me to masturbation,” Safechuck says of Jackson, with no major difference in tone to how he previously described getting to “interview” Jackson on a plane, or getting mobbed by fans while traveling with him on tour — just the same kind of shell-shocked awe and confusion with which all the Neverland subjects seem to approach memories of those early days. Ultimately, the film suggests that to Jackson and these boys, all of that other stuff was the buildup to a sexual relationship, normalizing the surreal in these boys’ lives to the point where nothing could possibly seem all that out of the ordinary. “It just didn’t seem that strange,” Robson says, recalling their first sexual contact.
Two other elements of Leaving Neverland make it a particularly brutal viewing experience, no matter how much you’ve read about it or how prepared for it you think you are. One is the sheer exhaustiveness of the sexual activity ultimately described. When Safechuck and Robson begin to describe the alleged abuse — touching that is inappropriate on any level for an adult to perform with a child — it seems to at least have a thin veneer of childhood exploration at first, the kind that makes it conceivable that it may have been sold by Jackson to his young charges as a simple extension of their friendship and love for one another. But as their descriptions continue into more specific and graphic territory, that veneer quickly dissolves into unmistakable, gut-wrenching exploitation. Even worse than the variety of contact alleged is the sheer volume: At one point, Safechuck describes an outlay of the Neverland grounds as if giving a guided tour, but his description of nearly every area or room ends with an unflinching addendum: “We would have sex in there, too.”
The second is the illustration of Michael Jackson as a master manipulator. With Jackson projecting a naivete and innocence to the world that’s childlike in itself, and with his own history of youthful trauma well documented, it was easy to see the worst headlines about him that piled up over 30 years of scandal and be able to tell yourself that even if he was guilty, he probably didn’t totally grasp the significance of what he was doing — that he really thought he was being a friend to these boys. But hearing Robson and Safechuck’s stories of how Jackson isolated them from their parents, how he tried to turn them against others and women in particular (“Look how mean your mom is, and how evil women are,” Safechuck recalls Jackson telling him while the two eavesdropped on the former’s parents fighting), and how he gradually phased them out of his life once he found newer, younger companions, that interpretation becomes far less tenable. With all of the misconduct alleged in the two hours of part one, the most chilling moment probably comes when Joy Robson, Wade’s mother, describes Jackson’s reaction to her refusal to leave Wade with him in Los Angeles for a full year: “Well, I always get what what I want.”
Yet despite all this alleged malfeasance on Jackson’s part, the interview subjects still seem to largely view him with a mixture of fondness, pity and awe. There’s still a hint of a smile evident when Joy and Stephanie describe their families being wooed by the pop icon, and glee in the memory when the Safechucks describe getting to meet Sean Connery and Harrison Ford on the set of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a result of their association with Jackson. The best way to describe the tone of Wade and James as they detail their earliest MJ experiences — particularly (though not exclusively) before the abuse allegedly started — is one of a haunted wistfulness, as if the cup-runneth-over excitement and happiness of those days is still very much a part of them, and their primary wish would be to recapture that feeling, without it being tainted by all the heartbreak and trauma they say came after. But to them, even now, Michael Jackson is clearly still very much Michael Jackson: The greatest entertainer and most overwhelming human presence they ever knew, in addition to being a sad, lonely, egomaniacal and ultimately dangerous and destructive person.
“There’s no stars like that now,” James Safechuck claims when describing Jackson’s intergalactic celebrity at one point early in the documentary. It’s true — and perhaps the strongest argument made by the first part of Leaving Neverland is that it’s probably for the best that there aren’t.