Television release poster
|Directed by||Dan Reed|
|Produced by||Dan Reed|
|Music by||Chad Hobson|
|Edited by||Jules Cornell|
182 minutes (UK version)
Leaving Neverland is a 2019 documentary directed and produced by the British filmmaker Dan Reed. It focuses on two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who allege they were sexually abused as children by the singer Michael Jackson. It also examines the effects on their families.
The film is a co-production between the UK broadcaster Channel 4 and the US broadcaster HBO. It premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2019 and was broadcast on HBO in two parts in March 2019. It received mostly positive reviews from critics and generally mixed reviews from viewers. The documentary resulted in a backlash against Jackson and a reassessment of his legacy.
In 1993, Michael Jackson was accused of sexually molesting 13-year-old Jordan Chandler. Jackson denied the claims and settled the civil case out of court for a $15 million payment. The settlement included a nondisclosure agreement and no criminal charges were filed. In 1994, Jason Francia accused Jackson of molesting him from when he was 7 to 10 years old. Jackson again made an out-of-court settlement with Francia's family for more than $2 million and a NDA. In 2005, Jackson was criminally charged with child abuse, following concerns raised in the 2003 documentary Living with Michael Jackson. In the film, Jackson was holding hands with a boy named Gavin Arvizo and talked about his sleepovers with children. Jackson was acquitted of child sexual abuse charges.
In 2013, choreographer Wade Robson filed a civil lawsuit alleging that Jackson had sexually abused him for seven years, beginning when he was seven years old. In 2014, a case was filed by James Safechuck after seeing an interview with Robson, alleging sexual abuse over a four-year period from the age of ten. Both had previously testified in defense of Jackson — Safechuck as a child during the 1993 investigation, Robson both as a child in 1993 and as a young adult in 2005. In 2015, Robson's case against Jackson's estate was dismissed on the grounds of being filed too late. In 2017, it was ruled that the corporations formerly owned by Jackson could not be held accountable for Jackson's alleged past actions.
In the film, Robson, Safechuck, and their respective families describe their relationships with Jackson. It includes graphic descriptions by both men of Jackson's sex acts during their boyhood. The descriptions include masturbation, rimming, oral sex, and in the case of Wade Robson, anal sex when he was 14 years old. Safechuck and Robson allege that Jackson committed these acts and sexually abused them at his home, Neverland Ranch, and at his other residences across California.
Director Dan Reed described his film as a "study of the psychology of child sexual abuse, told through two ordinary families...groomed for 20 years by a paedophile masquerading as a trusted friend."
The documentary was conceived by Channel 4's editors. After Reed produced enough material to make a four-hour film, the HBO network joined the production. He felt the four-hour length was necessary to present the story "in a way that makes it fully understandable in all its complexity." Reed did not use the film to comment on Jackson's actions or motivations.
In February 2017, Reed and assistant producer Marguerite Gaudin flew to Hawaii to interview Robson. Robson agreed to tell his story chronologically and omit no details. A camera failed shortly after shooting began, but a solution was found; shooting continued until nighttime and continued throughout the second day. Reed travelled to Los Angeles later that week to shoot Safechuck's story in two days. Reed said that Robson, Safechuck, and their families received no financial compensation for the film.
After filming, Reed returned to London and began corroborating the stories. Wondering how Robson and Safechuck's mothers could have allowed their sons to be abused, he returned to Los Angeles in November 2017 and interviewed their families. The wedding ring scene with James Safechuck was filmed in July 2018. Reed decided that footage he had shot of former detectives and prosecutors from the 1993 case and the 2005 trial was unnecessary.
Reed was unable to contact Jordan Chandler for the documentary and assumed he would prefer to remain private. He did not contact Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes, both of whom have denied being abused by Jackson. Reed said Chandler and Gavin Arvizo's stories could form the basis for a second documentary.
Leaving Neverland premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2019. For television, it was split into two parts broadcast on March 3 and 4 on HBO in the US and March 6 and 7 on Channel 4 in the UK. It broke Channel 4 streaming records and became the most downloaded Channel 4 show ever, and took a 45% share of young television audiences. In the US, the first episode was watched by 1.29 million viewers and scored 0.41 in the key 18–49 demographic. The second episode was watched by 0.927 million viewers and scored 0.26 in the 18–49 demographic.
Kew Media Group sold the documentary to channels in 130 territories. In New Zealand, the first episode was watched by 716,000, making it one of the most watched non-sporting non-news broadcasts in the country's history. Netherlands broadcaster VPRO referred viewers to the Mind Korrelatie foundation for victims of sexual abuse, and attracted callers in large numbers.
The US broadcast was followed by Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland (recorded March 2, 2019), in which Robson, Safechuck, and Reed were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey before an audience of victims and their families. The special was watched by 0.78 million viewers and scored a 0.23 in the 18–49 demographic in its initial broadcast and was later made available on HBO On Demand, HBO Go, and HBO Now.
On Rotten Tomatoes, Leaving Neverland holds an approval rating of 98% based on 92 reviews, with an average score of 7.97/10. Its consensus states: "Crucial and careful, Leaving Neverland gives empathetic breadth and depth to the complicated afterlife of child sexual abuse as experienced by adult survivors." On Metacritic, it holds a weighted average of 85 out of 100, indicating "universal acclaim," based on 21 reviews.
In Vanity Fair, Owen Gleiberman described the two men's stories as "overwhelmingly powerful and convincing." Hank Stuever of The Washington Post thought the documentary was "riveting" and "devastating," ending his review with a plea: "Turn off the music and listen to these men." Melanie McFarland of Salon believed the film's "intent isn’t to merely grant these men and their families a platform to air their stories in all their painful fullness, but to place the viewer inside the perspectives of everyone who was taken in by the dream...it does leave the viewer in the thorny clarity of what we know now." Matthew Gilbert of The Boston Globe wrote that the film was not "particularly imaginative," yet he admired how it chronicled Robson's and Safechuck's emotional narrative: "it accounts for every stage of their respective recoveries, which are still in progress, including their darkest feelings of fear, denial, and shame." In Entertainment Weekly, Kristen Baldwin gave the film a B grade. She criticized it as "woefully one-sided" and concluded: "As a documentary, Leaving Neverland is a failure. As a reckoning, though, it is unforgettable." In The Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Fienberg wrote: Leaving Neverland is "about the 20+ years...Robson and Safechuck [held secrets, lied, covered up] — and the damage that can do — as it is about the alleged crimes." He concluded, "it's doubtful you'll feel exactly the same after watching." The Daily Telegraph awarded it five out of five, describing it as "a horrifying picture of child abuse."
David Fear wrote in Rolling Stone: "By offering these men a forum, this doc has clearly chosen a side. Yet the thoroughness with which it details this history of allegations, and the way it personalizes them to a startling degree, is hard to shake off." IndieWire's David Ehrlich wrote that the film was "dry" and "hardly great cinema," but that it was "a crucial document for a culture that still can't see itself clearly in Michael Jackson's shadow." Alissa Wilkinson described the documentary as "a devastating case" that "may forever" change Jackson's legacy. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper described it as a "devastating and undeniably persuasive film."
Response from Jackson estate and supporters
In January 2019, the Jackson estate issued a press release condemning the film: "The two accusers testified under oath that these events never occurred. They have provided no independent evidence and absolutely no proof in support of their accusations." In February 2019, the estate filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO, petitioning a court to compel their arbitrate cooperation regarding the film's broadcast. As Jackson has died, HBO cannot be sued for defamation. Instead, the estate claimed HBO violated a 1992 agreement never to disparage Jackson's public image, one of the terms in broadcasting his concert film Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour. On the day of the HBO premiere of Leaving Neverland: Part One, the estate posted Live in Bucharest on YouTube. The next day, to coincide with the broadcast of Part Two, the estate posted another concert film, Live at Wembley July 16, 1988.
Jackson fans demanded the Sundance Film Festival cancel the screening. At the Sundance premiere, Robson and Safechuck said they had received death threats from some fans. There were protests outside Channel 4's office, an internet campaign against the film calling it a "mockumentary," and a crowdfunded advertising campaign publicising Jackson's alleged innocence with the slogan "Facts don't lie. People do" on buses and bus stops. On March 13, Transport for London announced it would remove the adverts after the charity Survivors Trust complained that they could discourage victims of sexual abuse from coming forward.
In 2005, actor Corey Feldman, who was friends with Jackson as a child, publicly admitted he did remember an occasion of Jackson's behaviour being "inappropriate," yet maintained Jackson never molested him. Feldman initially called Leaving Neverland "one-sided." Two days later, he softened his position, saying he was now following the new allegations more closely.
American singer Barbra Streisand spoke in Jackson's defense, saying "his sexual needs were his sexual needs," the accusers were "thrilled to be there." She added that the accusers were "both married and they both have children, so it didn't kill them." She later apologized and expressed sympathy for the accusers. English singer Boy George expressed skepticism about the documentary's claims: "It's just taken almost for granted that this is what happened and therefore we all should accept it." American singer Madonna also spoke in defence of Jackson: "I don’t have a lynch-mob mentality, so in my mind, people are innocent until proven guilty."
Singer Aaron Carter, who was friends with Jackson since he was 14, stated that he remembered his friend as "a really good guy...never did anything that was inappropriate." Yet, without elaborating, Carter also admitted "Except for one time. There was one thing [Michael] did that was a little bit inappropriate." The next day, he clarified his comments stating that nothing sexual in nature happened, reaffirming his belief that Jackson did not molest children.
Brandi Jackson, Michael Jackson's niece, defended him – claiming she was in a relationship with Wade Robson during their teenage years and questioned Robson's credibility. A former bodyguard of Jackson dismissed claims of child sexual abuse, saying that Jackson was "into women." A second bodyguard condemned the film for omitting Robson and Safechuck's lawsuits against the Jackson estate.
According to Jackson biographer Mike Smallcombe, Safechuck's claims of sexual abuse at Neverland’s train station from 1988 to 1992 are false because the train station was not built until 1994. Reed stated "The two still photos of the station shown in [the film] were in fact taken by James," inferring that Safechuck experienced sexual abuse at Neverland before and after the train station was constructed. Smallcombe called Reed's response "embarrassing." He accused Reed of changing Safechuck’s timeline to post-1994, claiming that would damage the accusers' civil lawsuits.
- Radio broadcasters including Cogeco in Quebec, the NH Radio in the Netherlands, Radio New Zealand and the NZME group removed Jackson's music from their playlists.
- "Stark Raving Dad", a 1991 episode of The Simpsons that guest-starred Jackson, was pulled from circulation.
- Drake removed "Don't Matter to Me", a 2018 song with Jackson's vocals, from his Assassination Vacation Tour.
- Items of Jackson's clothing and a Jackson poster were removed from the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
- Fashion house Louis Vuitton announced they will no longer produce Jackson-inspired products.
- Katelyn Ohashi, American artistic gymnast, removed Jackson's music and dance moves from her floor routine at the 2019 PAC-12 Championships.
- A June 2019 London concert of music produced by Jackson collaborator Quincy Jones removed Jackson's name and album titles from its advertisements. Some concertgoers demanded refunds.
- According to Billboard, Jackson's combined music sales, including his work with the Jackson 5, increased 10%. Michael Jackson audio and video streams increased 6%, rising to 19.7 million between March 3–5, from 18.7 million between February 24–26. His videos were viewed 22.1 million times, an increase of roughly 1.2 million from the week prior. Three of his albums re-entered the UK iTunes chart.
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