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 documentary resulted in a backlash against Jackson and a reassessment of his legacy.
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.
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 payment of $15 million plus legal fees; the settlement included a nondisclosure agreement. No criminal charges were filed. In 2005, following further allegations, Jackson was acquitted of child sexual abuse.
In the film, Wade Robson, James Safechuck, and their families describe their relationship with Jackson. Safechuck and Robson allege that Jackson sexually abused them at his home, Neverland Ranch, in California, and at Jackson's apartment in Century City.
Reed described his film as "study of the psychology of child sexual abuse, told through two ordinary families who were groomed for 20 years by a paedophile masquerading as a trusted friend".
Reed chose not to comment on Jackson's actions or motivations, and to leave the documentary "neutral". He felt the four-hour length was necessary to present the story "in a way that makes it fully understandable in all its complexity".
In February 2018, 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 filming began, but a solution was found, and filming continued until nighttime and continued throughout the second day. Reed travelled to Los Angeles later that week to film Safechuck's story in two days. Reed said that Robson, Safechuck, and their families received no 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 2018 and interviewed their families. He 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 Chandler for the documentary and assumed he would prefer to remain private. He decided not to contact Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes, who also knew Jackson as children and said Jackson had never acted inappropriately, as he was "not in the business of outing anyone ... they deny to this day that anything sexual happened and I'm not about to try to change their minds about that." 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.
On Rotten Tomatoes, Leaving Neverland holds an approval rating of 98% based on 84 reviews, with an average score of 7.91/10. 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 20 reviews.
In Vanity Fair, Owen Gleiberman described the two men's stories as "overwhelmingly powerful and convincing." 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 nearly as much about the 20+ years during which Robson and Safechuck held onto secrets or even lied and covered up the truth — and the damage that can do — as it is about the alleged crimes themselves." He concluded that "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".
Jackson estate and supporters
In January 2019, the Jackson estate issued a press release condemning the film, saying: "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 Jackson estate filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO, petitioning a court to compel the network to cooperate in arbitration regarding its plan to broadcast the film. As Jackson is dead, HBO cannot be sued for defamation; instead, the estate claims that HBO violated a 1992 agreement never to disparage Jackson's public image, one of the terms of a deal made to broadcast Jackson's 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 following day, to coincide with the broadcast of Part Two, the estate posted another concert film, Live at Wembley July 16, 1988.
Actor Corey Feldman, who was friends with Jackson as a child, said that Jackson had not acted inappropriately towards him and called the documentary "one-sided". Two days later, he softened his position, saying: "It comes to a point where as an advocate for victims, as an advocate for changing the statutes of limitations to make sure victims' voices are heard, it becomes impossible for me to remain virtuous and not at least consider what's being said and not listen to what the victims are saying."
Jackson fans demanded the Sundance Film Festival cancel the premiere. At the Sundance premiere, Robson and Safechuck said they had received death threats from Jackson fans. Fans protested outside Channel 4 office and led an internet campaign against the film. They also launched a crowdfunding advertising campaign proclaiming Jackson's innocence, with the slogan "Facts don't lie. People do" appearing on buses and bus stops. On 13 March, 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. Mike Pesca of Slate and Kevin Fallon of The Daily Beast described the fans as conspiracy theorists.
- A number of radio broadcasters removed Jackson's music from their stations, including Cogeco in Quebec, the NH Radio in The Netherlands, and Radio New Zealand and the NZME group.
- "Stark Raving Dad", an episode of The Simpsons that guest-starred Jackson, was pulled from circulation.
- Drake removed "Don't Matter to Me", a 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.
- Louis Vuitton announced they will no longer produce Jackson-inspired products as part of a 2019 autumn/winter collection.
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- Flint, Joe (March 7, 2019). "'Simpsons' Episode Featuring Michael Jackson's Voice to Be Pulled". The Wall Street Journal.
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