PARK CITY, Utah – After weeks of pushback from Michael Jackson’s estate, HBO’s highly anticipated “Leaving Neverland” bowed at the Sundance Film Festival Friday morning.
“We’re getting real really early,” festival director John Cooper said as he introduced the four-hour documentary, which details allegations of child molestation against the late pop icon. Police officers were stationed outside the Egyptian Theatre in case of protesters, and healthcare professionals were on hand in the lobby for audience members who could be triggered by the film’s graphic descriptions of sexual abuse involving minors.
“Neverland” centers on accusers Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40, who allege that Jackson began sexually abusing them at ages 7 and 10, respectively. At the time, both boys were diehard fans with entertainment aspirations of their own: Robson, who went on to choreograph for Britney Spears and *NSYNC as an adult, first met Jackson after winning a dance contest during the singer’s 1987 Bad tour in Australia. Safechuck, a child actor, appeared with Jackson that same year in a Pepsi commercial and says he began to hang out regularly with the star in Los Angeles.
Robson and Safechuck each filed lawsuits against Jackson’s estate in 2013 and 2014, respectively, although judges denied both for technical reasons and did not evaluate the merits of the allegations. Both men were on hand for Friday’s screening in Park City, where they tearfully appeared with director Dan Reed.
“Neverland” has drawn intense backlash from the musician’s fans since it was announced earlier this month. In a statement to USA TODAY following Friday’s premiere, Jackson’s estate said that the project “isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death. The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact.”
Here are five allegations presented in “Neverland,” which premieres on HBO this spring.
1. ‘Leaving Netherland’ alleges a lot of sexual activity at MJ’s ranch
Safechuck claims that Jackson introduced him to masturbation while staying together at a hotel in Paris. “He told me I was his first sexual experience,” Safechuck says, adding that one morning, Jackson told him he performed oral sex on him while he was sleeping.
Robson says he experienced similar sexual encounters with Jackson when he would visit Neverland Ranch, adding that the pop star kept a large, cardboard cutout of Peter Pan in his bedroom, which he would often look at, Robson alleges, as Jackson masturbated behind him. Robson says that Jackson later introduced him to porn and gave him alcohol.
2. He would allegedly run drills with Safechuck to avoid getting caught
At the start of their relationship, Safechuck alleges that Jackson would regularly test him on how quickly he could put on his clothes as quietly as possible. When Safechuck or Robson’s parents stayed at the same hotel, both men allege Jackson often ensured they were staying down the hall or on different floors from the suites Jackson shared with the boys. He also had multiple locks and thick, wooden doors installed throughout Neverland Ranch, where Safechuck claims they had sex inside his castle, pool, attic and train station.
“It happened every day,” Safechuck says. “It sounds sick, but when you’re first dating somebody, you do a lot of it.”
Jackson would repeatedly remind the boys that they could never share anything about what they did: ” ‘If anyone ever found out that we were doing these sexual things, we would go to jail for the rest of our lives,’ ” Robson recalls him saying. “I was terrified.”
3. Jackson allegedly staged a mock wedding, complete with rings and vows
Years into their relationship, which lasted until he was 14, “we were like this married couple,” Safechuck remembers. There was one day when Jackson suggested they hold a mock ceremony at his condo, where they allegedly exchanged “vows” and he gifted the boy with a diamond-encrusted gold ring.
“I was really into jewelry, so he would reward me with jewelry for sexual acts,” Safechuck says in the film. He claims that Jackson would take him to jewelry stores where they would pick out rings, acting as if the gift was for a woman.
4. Robson claims he was ordered to throw out his underwear after they first had sex
After moving to Los Angeles to focus on dancing and to be closer to Jackson, Robson was devastated to learn that the singer had “moved on” to other boys including Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes (both of whom have denied that Jackson sexually abused them).
“There was jealousy from me,” Robson says. “It was confusing.”
After a few years of occasional encounters, the singer allegedly summoned a then-14-year-old Robson to his hotel room, where he had sex with the teen. The next day, Robson says Jackson called him demanding that he get rid of his underwear from the night before, in fear that Robson’s mother would discover it. It was the last sexual experience they had together.
5. Jackson allegedly said his relationship with Lisa Marie Presley ‘didn’t mean anything’
As young children, both Safechuck and Robson claim that Jackson would try to turn them against their parents and make them hate women. He gave Robson nicknames such as “Little One” and “Doo Doo,” and would leave him daily faxes and voicemails saying how much he loved having a friend like him.
Leading up to his short-lived marriage to Lisa Marie Presley in 1994, Jackson would try to comfort Safechuck by telling him that he “had to have public relationships with women” but “it wouldn’t mean anything,” Safechuck says. The manipulation continued as they got older, as Jackson allegedly pressured both men to testify in 2005 that he never sexually abused them after he was charged with molesting 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo. Although Safechuck declined, Robson agreed to appear in court, citing an obligation to support his lifelong friend. Robson continued to defend Jackson three years later in an interview with Access Hollywood.