Leaving Neverland: Controversial new Michael Jackson documentary premieres at Sundance Film Festival

Protests expected at Sundance premiere as late superstar's estate denounces 'outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in' on legacy

Joe Sommerlad
Saturday 26 January 2019 14:45
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Michael Jackson documentary 'Leaving Neverland' screened at Sundance Film Festival 2019

Leaving Neverland, a new two-part documentary revisiting child sexual abuse allegations against the late pop superstar Michael Jackson, is being given its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Dan Reed’s film for HBO and Channel 4 has already provoked controversy, with the late singer’s estate denouncing the project and Park City police increasing its presence around the Egyptian Theatre ahead of the screening, anticipating angry protests from loyal Jackson fans.

Reed previously directed The Paedophile Hunter (2014), a Bafta-winning film about vigilante Stinson Hunter’s attempts to entrap child abusers online.

His new four-hour feature features allegations by Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, first made in 2013 and 2014 respectively, that Jackson abused them while they were seven and 10.

“This is yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson,” the late star’s representatives argue.

“Wade Robson and James Safechuck have both testified under oath that Michael never did anything inappropriate toward them. This so-called ‘documentary’ is just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations. It’s baffling why any credible filmmaker would involve himself with this project.”

In a statement of his own, Dan Reed countered: “If there’s anything we’ve learned during this time in our history, it’s that sexual abuse is complicated, and survivors’ voices need to be listened to.”

Michael Jackson, once known as the “King of Pop”, burst onto the scene with his brothers in 1964 as the boy frontman of the Jackson 5 before going on to a stellar solo career that saw him produce a string of best-selling albums, from Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982) to Bad (1987) and Dangerous (1991), wowing audiences with his cinematic music videos and kinetic liveshows.

An eccentric of huge interest to the tabloid press, Jackson was first accused of child sexual abuse in August 1993, when allegations he had molested 13-year-old Jordy Chandler were made by the boy’s father Evan, a dentist with aspirations to become a Hollywood screenwriter who had initially encouraged the friendship with his son.

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Jackson denied any wrongdoing but, rather than face a sensational trial that might have cleared his name, he chose to settle with the Chandlers, paying a reported $23m (£17.8m) in exchange for a gagging order, a decision that allowed suspicion to fester about his relationship with several of the children who visited his spectacular Neverland Ranch in Santa Ynez, California.

Attempting to dismiss the rumours once and for all, Jackson granted British journalist Martin Bashir unprecedented access to his theme park home for his film Living with Michael Jackson in 2003.

Naive remarks made by Jackson on film only made matters worse and a complaint was duly made to Los Angeles police by Janet Arvizo, mother of 13-year-old cancer sufferer Gavin, who had spent time at Neverland as the pop star’s guest.

Following a raid, the singer was subjected to a gruelling 16-week trial at Santa Barbara County Superior Court, accused of four counts of molesting a minor, four counts of intoxicating a minor, one count of abduction and one count of conspiring to hold the boy and his family captive.

Michael Jackson was found not guilty to all charges on 13 June 2005 but his career was left in tatters.

Following his death from a painkiller-induced heart attack during rehearsals for an ambitious comeback tour in June 2009, Robson and Safechuck first made their claims against him.

Robson has defended Jackson vehemently in the past: first at a press conference in 1993; on Jimmy Kimmel’s ABC chat show in 2003; and again when he testififed for the defence during Jackson’s trial.

“His music, his movement, his personal words of inspiration and encouragement and his unconditional love will live inside of me forever,” he said in tribute when the singer passed away.

The lawsuit he brought in 2013 therefore came as a suprise. In it, he alleged two Jackson companies, MJJ Productions and MJJ Ventures, had been used as a ploy to lure children to Neverland so the star could molest them.

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A year later, Safechuck came forward to say Jackson had abused him during the Bad World Tour in 1987, proposing to sue the singer’s production companies. Both cases were thrown out.

Given that the singer was acquitted in court, many fans of Michael Jackson remain angered by the accusations continuing to taint their idol’s extraordinary cultural legacy.

Whether Leaving Neverland‘s extensive interviews with Robson and Safechuck will offer any new evidence remains to be seen.

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