For his ardent global fan base, the dream of Michael Jackson lives — his art omnipresent, his cultural influence unparalleled, his trail of alleged transgressions swept away.
But an unflinching new documentary on paedophilia accusations against the late King of Pop has shattered the glittering veneer to present in lurid detail the stories of two men who say Jackson sexually abused them for years as minors.
Leaving Neverland, a four-hour film by British director Dan Reed, is considered so potentially devastating that counselling was made available at its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January. US cable network HBO will air it in two parts, starting today (Sunday), AFP reports.
The documentary centres on James Safechuck, 41, and Wade Robson, 36, who recount separate but consistent accounts of how their idol molested them as boys. Both describe how the childlike Jackson wooed them: inviting them into his fairytale existence, gaining their families’ trust and manipulating them into keeping their sexual relations secret.”You and I were brought together by God,” Robson said Jackson told him.
Their mothers offer their own narratives of seduction into the cult of Jackson -- and the guilt that haunts them for letting their sons enter so fully into the star’s world.
Now a notable choreographer, Robson, originally from Australia, met Jackson as a five-year-old after winning a dance competition. The megastar invited the boy to his Neverland Ranch in California, where Robson, by then seven, said the abuse began. He describes how their sexual relationship “escalated rapidly,” with Jackson telling him: “This is us showing each other that we love each other.”
Safechuck -- who said his abuse began at age 10, after he appeared in a Pepsi commercial with Jackson -- tells a similar tale. He says the superstar told him if anyone found out, their lives “would be over.”
It’s not the first public airing of abuse claims against Jackson but the release marks the first major explosion of the scandal since his fatal overdose at age 50, almost ten years ago.
His estate has vehemently defended Jackson, suing HBO for $100 million over a “posthumous character assassination” it says breaches an agreement made not to disparage the icon, a condition for airing one of his concerts.
Jackson faced accusations in 1993 of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy and settled out of court, with Robson and Safechuck saying Jackson hadn’t touched them.
In 2003 more accusations triggered a dramatic trial: that time, Safechuck kept a distance, but Robson testified for Jackson, who was acquitted.
Despite repeated questioning from the authorities and their families, neither man reversed their stories until recently, after becoming fathers themselves. Both filed their own lawsuits that were dismissed over statutes of limitations.
“You loved him in a lot of ways. And then you know Michael does these things to you that are not healthy,” Safechuck said. “It’s really hard to have those two feelings together. I still, today, am grappling with that.”
“Leaving Neverland” comes in the wake of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, and as R&B superstar R. Kelly faces a fresh legal reckoning for his own questionable history with underage girls.
For pop culture scholar Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, the release in today’s #MeToo context is key: Jackson’s trial was relatively recent, but “in so many ways, consciousnesses have been raised.”
“I could certainly see how a documentary this far out could completely change his legacy,” Thompson said.
Jackson’s sprawling homestead is back on the market for $31 million -- some 70 percent less than the asking price four years ago, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Diane Dimond, a journalist who covered the Jackson saga for years and has penned a book on the subject, said she expects more men will come forward.
“He was a prolific pedophile, that did what he did right under our noses because he knew he was so adored that he could get away with it,” she said.
But the fans, Dimond said, “will forever think that he was like Jesus.” “Jackson somehow strikes a chord, even today, in the very soul of people,” she added.
Thompson agrees, saying there’s little chance of erasing Jackson’s artistic legacy, even if his reputation is tarnished. “In any sense of rational history, we cannot retroactively say that no, Michael Jackson didn’t change the history of global pop -- because he did change the history of global pop,” Thompson said.
“The ripples of impact that he sent out were not ripples; they were tsunamis.”
For Safechuck, whose trembling hands in the film betray his struggle for calm, it’s a statement that rings all too true. “They say time heals all wounds,” Safechuck said. “But I don’t think time heals this one. It just gets worse.