After a week of turbulent anticipation, Dan Reed’s “Leaving Neverland” made its Sundance debut at Park City, Utah’s Egyptian Theater on Friday.
Moments before the screening began, festival director John Cooper informed the packed house that health care providers supplied by the state of Utah were standing by to offer counsel for those distressed by the film’s “explicit descriptions of sexual abuse.”
The precaution was not unwarranted. Reed’s film follows two accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, as they describe intense and graphic acts they say Jackson committed against them, as well those they say the pop icon coached them to commit on him.
Robson met Jackson through a dance competition at age 5, and said the sexual abuse began when he was 7. Safechuck was cast in a Pepsi commercial starring Jackson around age 8, and the alleged abuse began after months of close friendship.
Jackson consistently and wholly denied any wrongdoing when alive, saying he would never hurt a child. There were many difficult moments in the nearly four-hour screening. Here are a few that jumped out. (Warning: some of the following descriptions are graphic.)
Safechuck said Jackson wielded his own childhood interests against him during their relationship. At the time a pre-teen, Safechuck had an affinity for jewelry. Jackson would take him to various stores and luxury counters and have him sample different accessories. Safechuck said Jackson would tell salespeople that the gift was for a woman, but Safechuck’s small wrists and hands were helpful for sizing.
Jackson purchased a gold band lined in diamonds for Safechuck, the latter said, and gave him the gift in a “mock wedding” ceremony. The pair crafted their vows together, Safechuck said.
At the height of their “friendship,” as Jackson’s relationships with young men were often called, Jackson bought Robson a fax machine. It was hot tech in the late ’80s, and allowed Jackson to send yards of messages that read like love notes — or the fan mail the “Smooth Criminal” singer was accustomed to receiving.
“I love you little one,” one faxed note allegedly from Jackson to the 7-year-old dancer said. “Make me happy and be the best.”
Similar notes were shown in a rapid-fire montage, and included drawings Jackson did of himself as mementos for young Robson.
“The living room would be covered in faxes,” Robson’s mother, Joy, said in the film.
NEVERLAND WAS A GIANT BED
While many to this day paint Jackson’s spread, Neverland Ranch, as a testament to childlike spirit — and a personification of his once-absurd wealth — “Leaving Neverland” gives a different kind of tour of the famed space.
Virtually every structure on the grounds had hideaways with beds or privacy nooks. Safechuck said, at the height of Jackson’s alleged abuse, they used many locations around the ranch where Jackson would molest him. This includes a locked, private box in Jackson’s movie theater that used one-way glass so no one in the theater seats below could see inside.
Neverland’s train station had a hidden attic with a bed. One section of the flat yard was lined with teepees. Both locales were sites of abuse, said Safechuck. Oral sex games were played in the pool and Jacuzzi. The list goes on, and as the photos of each location ticked by, disgusted groans in the theater grew louder.
A few years after Jackson’s highly publicized 1993 child sex abuse case, the singer reconnected with 14-year-old Robson — who said he’d experienced a considerable growth spurt and was then as tall as Jackson. Still, the sexual abuse occurred one last time, Robson said, as Jackson rehearsed for his HIStory World Tour the following year in 1997.
He invited Robson to a Los Angeles hotel, in their first encounter in years, and attempted to anally penetrate the 14-year-old, Robson said. The act became too painful and Jackson relented, he said.
The next day, a private secretary of Jackson’s demanded Robson come to him right away at the L.A. dance studios where rehearsals were taking place. Robson said Jackson asked him what happened to the underwear Robson was wearing during their night together, and that if any blood was on the garment, Robson needed to get rid of it.
Robson complied, and indeed found his underwear bloody. He disposed of them in his condo’s garage dumpster.
Safechuck said, in his early years at the height of the alleged abuse, the superstar created a series of failsafes to avoid getting caught in the act. Bells lined the series of doors leading to Jackson’s master suite walk-in closet, where a blanket would be spread on the floor and the doors shut, he said.
Safechuck also said while on tour or traveling the world, he and Jackson would have “drills” of getting their clothes on as quickly as possible.
“Leaving Neverland” airs this spring on HBO.