By: Steve Pulaski
The second part of Dan Reed's exhaustive, four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland focuses on Wade Robson and James Safechuck's adulthood. Wade went on to be a coveted choreographer, crafting elaborate dance numbers for the biggest pop-stars of the early 2000s, such as Britney Spears and NSYNC, while James joined a band and pursued a career as a film director. As they grew older, both men saw more consistent contact with Michael Jackson only during the first trial against Jackson for sexual misconduct with minors, after a young boy named Jordy Chandler came forward saying that he was abused by the pop star.
In the early 1990s, when these allegations became prominent, the first thing the two boys did was deny. Whether or not they really grappled with what they were doing as a lie still confuses them to this day. Wade vividly remembers denying before police officers that anything illicit between him and Jackson took place, and James recalls answering all questions thrown at him about potential misconduct with an emphatic "no." Perhaps it was the abundance of young celebrities, like Macaulay Culkin and Corey Feldman, coming out asserting nothing ever took place that convinced them nothing did happen. While his career was in jeopardy, Jackson actually bought James and his family a home and promised to kickstart James' movie career upon convincing his family to pull him out of school. Jackson had such controlling tendencies over the families that only now does it appear clear as day, to James' mother, Stephanie, specifically, that what he was doing was paying off the family in the wake of an ugly scenario.
In one of the film's most troubling bits, Wade describes an encounter with Michael Jackson that involved anal sex and subsequently led to Wade scrambling to find his bloody underwear and throw it away before his mother saw it. That was the last sexual experience with Michael that Wade can remember.
Both men went on to get married and have children. Wade met his wife, Amanda, a promoter, at a night-club, while James met his wife, Laura, while he was performing with his band. Both men got a glimpse at normal, domestic life with these women who had no idea what Michael Jackson really did to them until much later in their marriage. For both Wade and James, two events made them truly grapple with the abuse: Michael Jackson's sudden death in June 2009 and becoming a father. Long stretches in the film's third act have all four parties discussing how their home-lives were soon left in tatters, as both Wade and James exhibited depressive and aggressive behaviors that led to self-isolation and nervous breakdowns. In particular, James had a baby and got attached to a huge movie project as a young director and quickly saw his life spiral before he backed away from everything.
Their abuse symptoms intensified. The thought of someone harming their own innocent children crept into their heads at separate but integral times during their later lives. Wade remembers having nightmares of Michael Jackson doing the same things to his child that he did to him, and even after testifying in Jackson's trial in the early aughts, saying no sexual abuse occurred, Wade went public in 2013 saying just the opposite. James eventually went on to do the same.
In its closing hour, Leaving Neverland does a strong job at confronting naysayers who will critique the clinical testimonies of Robson and Safechuck as being unemotional and, because of that, unbelievable. The two men talk extensively about what it was like to live in denial, and preach a lie so often that they themselves believed it to be true for many years. The documentary also doesn't let the parents off the hook as easy as I initially thought. There will be a lot of people, myself included, stunned that parents would allow their child to sleep in a hotel room with another grown adult. But even then, getting hung up on that stalls everything; it doesn't excuse what Michael Jackson allegedly did. "I didn't protect my son and that will always haunt me," Stephanie Safechuck, James' mother, says towards the end of the film. There's enough guilt and blame to go around.
Leaving Neverland is as gut-wrenching of a documentary as they come, equipped with no easy answers, stomach-turning details, and an "art vs. artist" debate that will last a generation and beyond. It's not a stretch to believe that radio stations will begin pulling Michael Jackson songs from their library; that's how sweeping and impacting this film has the potential to be. As a documentary, the film has a serviceable style, with its clinical and linear presentation, but that's what these stories, after so many decades, deserve. Errol Morris might've brought a more investigative approach to the material, but Reed's straight-forwardness and unglamorous approach coupled with the direct testimonies from Wade, James, and their families leaves nothing to the imagination.