“The days were filled with playing tag, watching movies. He taught me to how to do the Moonwalk.” In 1990, Wade Robson was a 7-year-old dance prodigy and Michael Jackson superfan who found himself learning at the feet of the King of Pop himself. At 5, decked out in a precocious child’s approximation of MJ’s spangly tough-guy outfit from the cover of his blockbuster 1987 album Bad, Wade had won a dance contest at a shopping mall in his native Brisbane, Australia, despite technically being too young to enter. His prize: tickets to a Michael Jackson concert and a private meeting with his hero.
A few years later, he found himself at Neverland Ranch, Michael’s sprawling and utopian compound in Southern California. It had a zoo with chimpanzees. A video arcade. A movie theater with a take-all-you-want candy counter and a few private rooms in the back. Wade’s family—his mother, his grandmother, his older sister—were off on a side trip to the Grand Canyon. He had Michael all to himself, for five whole days.
“This contrast began,” Wade says now, “between the day and the night.”
“This piece of jewelry is like a Rolex ring with a diamond in the middle.” James Safechuck grew up in California’s Simi Valley, started doing commercials at age 7 (he was “money in the bank,” as his agent bragged to his mom), and a few years later met Michael Jackson, when they costarred in a Pepsi ad. They kept in touch. Incredibly, MJ would come to the humble Safechuck house for dinner; he invited the family to a Pepsi convention in Hawaii. A helicopter ride. A rented-out amusement park. Dolphins. Young Jimmy wanted to stay in Michael’s hotel room, but his mother, Stephanie Safechuck, intervened: “It didn’t feel right. You don’t go sleep with somebody else that you don’t really know.”
A few years after that, Michael and Jimmy would regularly go jewelry shopping. “My hands are shaking just holding them,” the adult James says, fidgeting with various rings that by now are much too small for any of his fingers. “We would go buy them at jewelry stores, and we would pretend they were for somebody else. Like for a female. We’d pretend my small hand fit whatever female we were buying it for.” They, too, spent a lot of time together at Neverland. Wrapped up in sleeping bags in the giant teepee. In a bed nestled away in the arcade. In the separate house for Jackson’s memorabilia: the jackets, the gloves, the Grammys. In those private back rooms in the movie theater.
“It’s still hard,” James says now, “for me to not blame myself.”
Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland—the two-part, four-hour documentary that premiered amid much protest at Sundance in January and airs over Sunday and Monday nights on HBO—is horrifying in a way that transcends language. Every vintage photograph of a beaming, prepubescent boy decked out in full MJ cosplay—young Wade in the dapper white suit from the “Smooth Criminal” video, for example—is another crushing blow to the head.
Both Wade and James say that Michael Jackson molested them for years. Their accounts of that abuse (which at the time registered to those young boys as pure love) are solemn and visceral and excruciatingly detailed; the contrast between the day and the night is nearly unbearable. This documentary’s worst moments are graphic and manifestly awful.
The journalistic aspect is vexing all on its own. Leaving Neverland’s closest 2019 analog, January’s six-part Lifetime series Surviving R. Kelly, inundates you with so many outside perspectives that you’re knocked flat—journalists, former confidantes, and experts in criminology or psychology, all augmenting the testimony of the seemingly countless women who’ve crossed the loathsome R&B star’s path over the course of 25-plus years. Kelly is now facing 10 new counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse; there is a growing sense that Surviving R. Kelly has culturally resonated and will have real-world consequences in ways that decades of dogged reporting and one previous child-pornography trial had not. There might be, at long last, too much damning information to ignore.
Whereas Leaving Neverland devotes all four hours solely to Wade, James, and their families: their mothers, especially. The approach is so insular that the documentary forgoes even the expected onscreen denials and disclaimers from Jackson’s lawyers or estate, which in January dismissed the film as “yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson.” (The estate is now suing HBO directly for violating a 1992 disparagement clause; as for the film itself, Part 1 ends with a single disclaimer regarding two other young boys who spent a great deal of time with the star: “Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes categorically deny any sexual contact with Michael Jackson.”) Believing Wade and James requires you to accept that they both lied for years about their interactions with Jackson, defending him in vehement and absolute terms, professing his innocence even to the police or in court. Total certainty is elusive and hardly soothing even in theory. And the overpowering feeling of disgust and even despair, unfortunately, is nonnegotiable regardless.
What is undeniable is that both the Robsons and the Safechucks have amassed a lifetime’s worth of MJ memorabilia: photographs, intimate home videos, answering-machine messages, reams of handwritten faxes back when that was Jackson’s easiest way to keep in touch. Visually, Leaving Neverland plays like a scrapbook or an endless vacation reel, the opulence intensifying right alongside the horror. He knew them. They knew him. He took them on a fantastical, whirlwind adventure that never seemed to end.
All these artifacts are not souvenirs; they are family heirlooms. “I came to feel like he was one of my sons, by how he behaved,” says James’s mother, Stephanie. “I loved him. He was a son I started to take care for. He would start to spend the night. I’d wash his clothes.” Wade’s mother, Joy Robson, felt similarly, right to the bitter end. When Jackson died in June 2009, she curled up in bed with one of his jackets for a week: “It was like losing a family member. It was hard to accept.” Even then, she had no reason to react otherwise.
Leaving Neverland spends much of its first half contrasting the searing recollections of James and Wade with the wide-eyed naivete of their mothers, who even now, on camera, are often play-acting the certainty they had back then that nothing was amiss. It is bewildering to the point of enraging, with the same What Could These Parents Possibly Be Thinking outlandishness as the recent true-crime doc and Netflix sensation Abducted in Plain Sight. Separately, both these boys regularly slept in Jackson’s bed and spent first hours, then full days and nights cavorting with him unattended. In the documentary, Joy recalls that Wade and Jackson spent a lot of time in their room playing games and watching cartoons, mere minutes after we’ve heard her son reel off a litany of sexual horrors. Later, Wade describes, in equally graphic detail, his prolonged exposure, via Jackson, to pornography: “It was, again, like him pulling back the curtain on this whole other universe, but this one wasn’t so fun. I was 7.” Cut to Joy, still singing Jackson’s praises: “He just came across as a loving, caring, kind soul. So it was easy to believe that he was just that.”
Part of that faith is down to Jackson’s famously permanent childlike nature—he was a child star so world-historically successful that his music sometimes conveyed the idea that he’d sacrificed his actual childhood. An ever bigger factor, of course, was Jackson’s all-encompassing celebrity: As a pop star, he was without equal, then and certainly now. He showered these families with gifts, attention, and a megastar wattage that felt both deeply specific and intergalactic. “This was all so overwhelming and like a fairy tale,” Stephanie says. “And I got lost in it. And I know my husband got lost in it, too.” Surviving R. Kelly is an indictment of society at large, of its particularly brazen indifference to the suffering of young black women. Leaving Neverland tells a far more personal story with its own unsettling implications. Jackson turned both these women into surrogate mothers. He also turned them into villains.
The Safechuck story is confined mostly to James and Stephanie; the Robson saga ripples out wider, all but destroying the family. Wade grew into a talented dancer and choreographer who’d eventually work closely with the likes of ’NSync and Britney Spears. As a child, along with his mother and older sister, he relocated from Australia to L.A. at Jackson’s urging, essentially abandoning his much older brother and his dad, who suffered from mental health issues and later died by suicide.
That tragedy is mostly laid at Joy’s feet. “I remember my father looking me in the eye at the airport and saying, ‘Have you lost your mind?’” she recalls of her more or less permanent departure to America alongside Wade and his sister. “And that has stayed with me for 26 years. ’Cause there’s many times I look back and think, yes, I had.”
As time passed, both Wade and James commanded less and less of Jackson’s attention. Other young boys were in the picture now, Macaulay Culkin most prominently. And soon, Jackson’s public legal troubles began in earnest. In 1993, he faced a civil lawsuit and possible criminal charges for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy named Jordan Chandler, eventually settling with his family for $22 million, but not before submitting to an examination by the Santa Barbara Police Department that Jackson described, in an unsettling video statement from Neverland, as “the most humiliating ordeal of my life.”
At the time, both Leaving Neverland boys rose to Jackson’s defense at his personal request. James gave a witness statement to the police and consented to mock interviews with Jackson’s lawyers, fully prepared to deny anything improper had ever occurred between them in the event of a trial; the Robsons are shown in media interviews insisting on Jackson’s innocence and benevolence. The settlement money proved, in both Joy’s and Stephanie’s eyes, that Chandler’s family’s motivations had been all about money. And their sons both swore that nothing untoward had ever happened to them personally.
That defense—that the families of all these boys were simply extorting him and taking advantage of his singular generosity—would protect Jackson for the rest of his life, even in court. In 2005, he was acquitted by a jury on a variety of charges centered on another 13-year-old boy, Gavin Arvizo. Wade testified on Jackson’s behalf at the trial. “I would have dreams of Jackson being in jail and being killed in jail,” he recalls now. “Dying in jail. I still loved him deeply.”
But even in the face of Jackson’s fury and total estrangement, James refused to testify and told his mother that Jackson wasn’t a good person. For a time, anyway, he left it that. But Stephanie’s reaction to news of Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 was nonetheless very different from Joy’s. “I danced when I heard that he died,” she recalls. “I was laying in bed, and the news came on, and I got out of bed, and I was, ‘Oh, thank god he can’t hurt any more children.’ Those were my thoughts. And I danced. ‘He can’t hurt any more children.’ I was so happy he died.” Leaving Neverland moves briskly through Jackson’s legal battles, which were of course covered at the time in great detail. Its focus is emotional to a crushing degree, and the result is grueling and gutting even during its subjects’ most joyful moments.
In the second half of Leaving Neverland, James and Wade both grow up and get married to bubbly, nurturing wives whose presences onscreen are a welcome blast of pure oxygen, even as the narrative slows. Soon, both men have children of their own, which only hastens their own deterioration; they struggle beneath the weight of the lies they’d told and the truth they’d still largely not admitted in full to anyone. The documentary’s final hour zeroes in on Wade, who eventually confesses to his wife, his brother, and his sister what happened. His sister recalls her immediate reaction: “I was afraid that my mom would commit suicide.”
Indeed, the fallout hits Joy the hardest; she is shunned, to some degree, by virtually everyone in her family, Wade included. (“He told me that he felt no emotion for me,” she recalls. “As a mother, that’s the last thing you want to hear from your child.”) Everyone in the Robson family struggles, on camera, with whether or not they forgive her for letting this happen to her son. “She turned everything upside-down because of Michael,” says Wade’s grandmother. “It’s not easy to accept even at this stage.”
What you’re left with is two women publicly flagellating themselves and anticipating the public flagellation to come. “I didn’t protect my son,” Stephanie says. “That will always always haunt me. I had one job. I had one child. And I had one job. And I fucked up. So I had all these months of loving my life with Michael and traveling and living the good life, so to speak. All these wonderful memories. It was all based on the suffering of my son. My son had to suffer for me to have this life. My son is messed up today because of it.”
Joy’s own verdict on herself is blunter and tied to her struggle over how to feel about Michael: “Maybe I can forgive him at some point if I try to understand that he was sick. But forgiving myself is another thing. I don’t know if I will ever do that.”
Meanwhile, you brace for the public backlash. Most of Leaving Neverland’s context comes through vintage and fairly benign TV-news clips, but the few late dispatches from the more modern world triggered by Wade’s unsuccessful 2013 attempt to sue Michael’s estate—an MJ supporter screaming obscenities in an online video, and a sneering clip from TMZ on TV—are cringeworthy portents of how this documentary might land when it hits the world outside Sundance. But HBO is standing by their decision to air it in the face of more recent legal threats from the Jackson family, and Oprah Winfrey will interview both Wade and James in an aftershow to air on both HBO and OWN. The aftermath promises to be unfathomably ugly, whatever the result.
But what concrete result is even fathomable? There is no “canceling” Michael Jackson. Even in death his music and his image is everywhere, is baked into everything. So much of Leaving Neverland is devoted to broken people describing terrible things but visibly struggling, even now, to fully absorb them. Given the army of people and armada of painful testimony that it has taken to nudge R. Kelly even slightly toward any sense of justice, this new film leaves you both overwhelmed and convinced that even overwhelmed will not suffice to change society’s gut reaction to hearing the first five seconds of “Billie Jean.” Leaving Neverland tells the worst tale imaginable. You can believe it and still not believe it.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.