It is nearly impossible now to understand the hysteria that surrounded Michael Jackson in the mid-eighties. Before social media and before smartphones, there existed a feverish intensity of interest in him. He was the biggest star. He was a genius. He was worshipped.
A hint of the old hysteria was in the air when it was made known there would be extra security at the Sundance Festival for a screening of a documentary, not about Jackson, but about two men who say Jackson sexually abused them for years.
He was worshipped back in the day, the worshippers are still alive and might be prepared to protest. As it happened, any attempted protest fizzled out.
Leaving Neverland (Sunday, Monday, Crave/HB0, 10 p.m.) is grim viewing. It is deeply unsettling and you are left shocked and exhausted by it. (It should be said that the program is best avoided by anyone triggered or perturbed by discussions of sexual abuse.) You are asked to judge the veracity of the story told and you must remember that the Michael Jackson estate denies all of it.
The two-part documentary is neither luridly made nor lascivious. It is essentially a collection of interviews, so it amounts to talking heads relating what happened. At the same time, if you are of a certain age, it is filled with history and landscape. You are transported back to the period when Jackson’s Thriller album was the biggest thing in the history of pop music. The whole world moved to its beat, and Jackson’s videos were ubiquitous on TV. He was inescapable and his concerts and personal appearances created delirium.
That was the context in which Jackson toured Australia in that period. Wade Robson was five years old, a shy kid, and after watching a show about the making of the Thriller video, he became obsessed. He mimicked Jackson’s dance moves with uncanny ability and that led to him winning a dance competition at a mall and an invitation to join Jackson on-stage. Jackson was smitten. The kid was adorable and a genuine dancing talent. Robson’s parents were impressed, too. The documentary opens with the adult Robson saying, “Michael was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew. And he also sexually abused me for seven years.”
In the United States at around the same time, nine-year-old Jimmy Safechuck wasn’t that interested in pop music. But people told his mom he was adorable and he could make money in TV commercials. One of his first gigs was a role in a Pepsi ad featuring Jackson. Jimmy is the kid who enters Jackson’s dressing room and tries on his jackets. Then Jackson enters the room and says, “Looking for me?” and the kid beams and Jackson beams back. Jackson wasn’t acting, according to Safechuck now. He was truly infatuated. A film crew sent by Jackson went to the Safechuck house and filmed him gushing about Jackson. Today, Safechuck says that little film was “like an audition.” In the following months, Jackson would visit the boy’s home often, staying over. Jimmy’s mom says Jackson became part of the family and she’d do his laundry if he stayed over. Everybody was way-happy with Jackson’s attention, gifts and money. It was just surreal to have this god in your house.
It is 40 minutes into the documentary when sex is mentioned. Jimmy and his family joined Jackson’s tour of Europe. He liked having them around. In a hotel room in Paris, Safechuck says, “Michael introduced me to masturbation. That’s how it started. That tour was the start of a sexual, couple relationship.”
There follows yet more sobering accounts of the two boys separately spending time at Neverland, Jackson’s lavish theme-park home. The fondling, the sex, the tactics used to make sure Jackson and a boy weren’t disturbed or caught. It’s all very matter-of-fact and chilling. How did the parents of these boys allow things to happen? Well, they also speak extensively.
And here’s the thing – both Safechuk and Robson, at one time, denied that Jackson had abused them. One did it twice in court.
They explain how this happened, as they see it. Jackson would tell them, repeatedly, that they had to keep the secret. That was vital to their friendship and well-being. He convinced them that both the victim and abuser would go to jail for life if the truth was known. So they lied. Later, they would lie to their parents, friends and their partners. It was only after Jackson died that they came to terms with what had actually happened.
There is a lot to absorb in this, the grimmest of grim tales: The power-dynamic, the sense that Jackson was, at one time, the most powerful celebrity in the world; the grooming of the boys and manipulation of their families. And the intensity of the original denials by the victims, with their compulsion to lie and lie again.
Jackson is, in truth, largely absent from the four-hour program. He’s there in photos and concert footage and in the context of now, and what the two victims say, it is unnerving to recall the hysteria that surrounded him. If you believe these men, and that is up to you, the hysteria was a fundamentally corrupt transaction.