Famed choreographer Wade Robson learned how to dance from watching Michael Jackson videos. His entire career is owed to Jackson’s mentorship. The King of Pop was the largest creative force and inspiration in his life. And, as Robson says in the new documentary Leaving Neverland: “He also sexually abused me. For seven years.”
Robson, who first caught the public eye at age 5 when Jackson invited him to dance on stage during the Bad tour, and later became a teen-phenom choreographer for Britney Spears and NSYNC, had revealed Jackson’s abuse, which started when he was 7 years old, before. He controversially came forward with the allegations in 2013, four years after Jackson had died and almost a decade after testifying in court that Jackson had never abused him. Robson’s testimony helped exonerate Jackson.
But in Leaving Neverland, Robson delivers a meticulous and graphic account of being sexually abused by Jackson. He describes the psychological damage inflicted by Jackson that forced Robson to keep the secret, reveals the lasting effects of the abuse into adulthood, and explains why he is coming forward now. Robson’s account is disturbingly mirrored by that of James Safechuck, a former child actor who starred in one of Jackson’s Pepsi commercials and says he suffered the same years-long pattern of sexual abuse after the singer befriended and, by their accounts, bewitched his family.
The four-hour, two-part documentary premiered Friday morning at the Sundance Film Festival, preceded by a warning about the graphic descriptions of sexual acts against a minor that would follow. (We’ll offer the same warning here.)
Robson and Safechuck recount incidents of masturbation, kissing, oral sex—at least once while Safechuck was sleeping—being forced to caress Jackson’s nipples, bending over for him while he pleasured himself, and being coaxed into painful anal sex.
They confess how Jackson brainwashed them into keeping it a secret and had carefully laid plans in place to keep them from getting caught. Both of their families are interviewed, painting a picture of how Jackson’s celebrity and child-like nature seduced them into a place of trust, chronicling through the present day the collective pain the families suffered when the truth was revealed.
The Sundance screening began nearly 30 minutes late due to intense security measures brought on by threats from protesters angry that Robson and Safechuck, whose stories have been inconsistent over the years, were given the documentary’s platform to “tarnish” Jackson’s legacy. A major police presence lined the Park City street outside the building and at one point a bomb-sniffing dog entered the theater during the screening, though only a handful of protesters could be spotted outside. Online, fans heralding Jackson’s innocence have flooded social media to discredit the documentary.
(Worth noting: Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance three years after a Spike Lee-directed documentary on the pop star, produced by the Jackson estate, that glossed over the molestation accusations almost entirely. “The legacy has been hijacked,” Lee told The Daily Beast at the time.)
Director Dan Reed made the conscious decision to limit the documentary solely to the accounts of Robson, Safechuck, and their families rather than re-litigate the two civil cases brought against Jackson or—explaining the criticism, perhaps—hear from anyone from the Jackson camp or staff who could either corroborate or refute their accounts. It’s “a film about two families whose paths crossed with the greatest entertainer ever produced,” he told the audience before the screening.
Both Robson and Safechuck tearfully took the stage to a standing ovation after the credits rolled. “I want to speak the truth as loud as I had to speak the lie for so long,” Robson says at the end of the documentary.
“Michael would like it if you would bend over…”
In 1986, James Safechuck got his big break when he was cast in a 1986 Pepsi commercial starring Michael Jackson. After filming was done, Jackson invited him to hang out in his trailer, which his mother, Stephanie, allowed after being assured by the singer’s hairstylist that “he’s like a little 9-year-old boy.”
Later, Jackson invited the entire Safechuck family to dinner at his house, wowing them with a screening of a yet-to-be-released film in his home movie theater and gifting Safechuck his “Thriller” jacket and wad of cash as he was leaving. Jackson would eventually befriend Safechuck’s parents, with Stephanie saying she thought of the legend as her own son. He would stay the night at their house, and she would even wash his clothes.
The summer after school ended, Jackson invited the Safechucks on tour with him. Safechuck, who was 10 years old at the time, called it “like two friends going on an adventure.” It was after weeks of pleading that Stephanie says she finally allowed her son to sleep in a bed alone with Jackson, something that seemed natural after watching the two interact like childhood friends despite their two-decade age difference. It was then, in a Paris hotel room, that the alleged abuse started.
Safechuck says that Jackson introduced him to masturbation that first night, having him doing it so often that the boy’s penis swelled and Jackson would have to dip it in warm water so that he could pee. Safechuck says it felt like a “bond” between them.
“Michael would like it if you would bend over and spread your cheeks,” he says. “Then he would masturbate.” He says that Jackson liked to have his nipples rubbed. Over time, a routine developed that would start with French kissing, include the masturbation, and eventually evolve to oral sex. Safechuck says that Jackson performed oral sex on him the first time while he was sleeping. He also allegedly told him that it was his very first sexual experience, something that only made Safechuck feel more special.
Jackson would allegedly run drills training Safechuck to get dressed as quickly and as quietly as possible, in case anyone interrupted him. He told him that if anybody found out, both of their lives would be ruined.
When Jackson bought and remodeled Neverland Ranch, he told Safechuck that the sprawling property was for him. Safechuck recounts all the places they would engage in sexual acts: in the bedroom closet, so that there were more barriers; in an attic; in toy teepees outside; in a movie theater. “It sounds sick, but it’s kind of like when you’re first dating somebody,” Safechuck recalls. “You do a lot of it”
“In a little 7-year-old’s mouth…”
Wade Robson spent his childhood in Brisbane, Australia, idolizing Michael Jackson. He got to meet the entertainer at age 5 after winning a dance-a-like contest and appeared on stage with him. During a family trip to Los Angeles two years later, Jackson invited the Robson family to Neverland for the weekend. He then invited Robson, who was 7, and his sister Chantal, who was 10, to spend the night in his room with him. Their parents agreed.
When the Robsons left for five days to sightsee at the Grand Canyon, they agreed to let Wade stay behind with Jackson. That first night alone together, Robson alleges that Jackson began fondling him over his pajamas, and then under. There was “nothing aggressive about it,” Robson says. “I wasn’t scared.”
Jackson then, Robson says, guided the boy to do the same to his erect penis. “You and I were brought together by God,” Robson says Jackson told him. “This is how we show our love.”
Throughout the week, Robson says they would shower together, French kiss, and he would squeeze Jackson’s nipples. Jackson, he says, performed oral sex on him and then convinced him to do the same. “In a little 7-year-old’s mouth…” Robson says, shaking his head. He alleges that Jackson would have him kneel on all fours on the bed and expose his anus while he masturbated, sometimes sticking his tongue in it.
He says he went through the same gaslighting about how no one would believe him if he talked about the sexual acts, with Jackson allegedly telling him they would both be jailed if it came out. “I liked the feeling that I was making him happy, that I was pleasing him,” Robson says.
Getting older—and jealous
Safechuck confesses at one point that he and Jackson had a mock wedding ceremony, even showing the camera the alleged diamond-encrusted ring they used that he still owns. The singer would reward him with jewelry for sexual acts, he says.
As he got older and approached his teenage years, he says the sex got dirtier, as Jackson introduced alcohol. One time, Safechuck says Jackson put his finger in his anus, even though he asked him not to.
Robson says that Jackson was the first person to ever show him pornography as he got older. Several years later, when Robson was 14, Jackson brought him back to his hotel. At this point, Robson was roughly the same size as Jackson. During this encounter, Robson alleges that Jackson attempted to penetrate him anally, though the act was too painful for Robson and did not last long.
The next day, Robson claims that Jackson told him to find and get rid of his bloody underwear. It would be their last sexual experience together.
Both Safechuck and Robson admit that, as they got older and Jackson would befriend new boys, they became jealous. Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes are given as examples of “replacements.”
Both Culkin and Barnes deny ever being sexually abused by Jackson.
Safechuck and Robson both testified in Jackson’s defense when 13-year-old Jordan Chandler accused Jackson of sexual abuse. The case was settled out of court, and both Safechuck and Robson’s parents, after having given Jackson so much trust, assumed it was a cash grab on the part of Chandler’s parents.
When another trial was brought against Jackson in 2003, Safechuck refused to testify on his behalf. Robson, however, did take the stand, asserting that Jackson never abused him. His testimony is credited with convincing the jury that Jackson was innocent. In 2013, Robson revealed publicly that he had lied on the stand.
“This was a long time coming…”
What’s notable about Leaving Neverland is its scope. It doesn’t distill Safechuck and Robson’s cases to the most salacious sex allegations. It spends time with their respective families to understand how semi-watchful parents could be so ignorant of what was going on, and why the two boys would bury the truth about their relationship with the entertainer for so long.
Both admit to bouts of depression and panic attacks that followed them into adulthood, as they each got married and became fathers. The film follows the effects of their alleged abuse through those milestones and, once they told their families what actually happened, the difficult paths to understanding and forgiveness.
More, it indicts so many people: the Safechuck and Robson families, the people in Jackson’s camp, Jackson’s fans, the media, and all of us. This was happening in plain sight. The amount of footage of Jackson walking hand-in-hand with a carousel of young boys through the years is shocking. He was exonerated for it twice. In many fans’ eyes, for a lifetime.
When Safechuck took the stage after the Sundance premiere, he was overwhelmed, saying, “This was a long time coming.” He had been inspired to come out with his story after seeing Robson’s interview on the Today show and hoped to connect with him, but legally the two were kept apart until the Friday screening.
During the post-screening Q&A, another child sex abuse survivor stood up and shared his story. Asked what to say to fans who find it hard to believe their stories and angry at a project that could sully Jackson’s legacy, Robson said, “I don’t feel like there’s anything I need to say to them except I understand that it’s hard for them to believe.” After all, he spent decades unable to believe that what happened to him at the hand of his hero and friend was “bad.”
“We can only accept and understand something when we’re ready,” he said. “Maybe we’ll never be ready. Maybe we will. That’s their journey.”