Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland premieres at Sundance: “More disturbing than you could imagine”

on January 25, 2019, 5:01pm

Leaving Neverland, the new documentary chronicling Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse allegations, premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival.

The four-hour documentary details Jackson’s long-running relationships with two boys, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, during the 1990s. “Now in their 30s, they tell the story of how they were sexually abused by Jackson, and how they came to terms with it years later,” reads the film’s official synopsis.

TMZ reports that Leaving Neverland is divided into two parts, with part one focusing on Safechuck’s and Robson’s individuals stories, and part two chronicling Jackson’s legal case.

According to Adam Vary of BuzzFeed, the film includes details of a mock wedding ceremony between Safechuck, then nine years old, and the pop singer. Safechuck says he received a wedding certificate and a ring as a symbol of “their undying love.”

Both Safechuck and Robson say they were abused on numerous occasions at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, and that Jackson “had alarms go off so the boys knew to put clothes on when people would approach at Neverland,” TMZ notes. Both men contend that the abuse got worse as they got older.

Leaving Neverland features interviews with Safechuck and Robson, as well as with both of their mothers. Their testimony is supported with “love notes” and audio messages that Jackson sent to the boys.

Jackson was charged with seven counts of child molestation in 2003, but was acquitted following a lengthy jury trial. He did, however, reportedly pay upwards of $20 million in civil settlements to his accusers.

In the trial, Robson took the stand and testified on Jackson’s behalf, saying at the time that while he spent the night at Neverland more than 20 times and slept in Jackson’s bed, Jackson never molested him. In the documentary, Robson says he felt compelled to testify after Jackson threatened him and he was “scared of the repercussions,” according to TMZ. Robson and Safechuck also testified on Jackson’s behalf in a separate civil suit brought in 1993.

Following Jackson’s death in 2009, both Robson and Safechuck brought civil suits against the Jackson Estate. In 2017, a judge threw out the lawsuits, arguing that the Jackson Estate couldn’t be held liable for the singer’s own behavior.

Due to threats of protests from Jackson supporters, there was a heavy police presence outside the Egyptian Theater prior to Friday’s Sundance screening of Leaving Neverland. Additionally, the festival provided mental health counselors for audience members who were upset by the film’s content.

In a statement released prior to the film’s premiere, the Jackson Estate called Leaving Neverland “another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson. Wade Robson and James Safechuck have both testified under oath that Michael never did anything inappropriate toward them. Safechuck and Robson, the latter a self-proclaimed ‘master of deception,’ filed lawsuits against Michael’s Estate, asking for millions of dollars. Both lawsuits were dismissed.”

“This so-called ‘documentary’ is just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations,” the statement continues. “It’s baffling why any credible filmmaker would involve himself with this project.”

In a post-screening Q&A (via Deadline), Safechuck said “there was no money ever offered” for his or Robson’s participation in the film. “This was really just trying to tell the story,” he said, adding he wanted to shine a light” on sexual abuse of children.

HBO will air Leaving Neverland later this year.