A secret system of bells to warn when other adults were approaching. A mock wedding ceremony with a young boy, complete with a gold ring studded with diamonds. Parents who were only too happy to be guests at Neverland, unaware what was happening to their sons a few closed doors away.
By the time he died at age 50 in 2009, Michael Jackson had been trailed by allegations of child sexual abuse for more than 15 years. That side of his life is the subject of a new two-part documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” that began airing on HBO Sunday night. (Part Two airs on Monday night, but is already available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now.) It contains granular, disturbing detail that could reshape his legacy for years to come.
The Michael Jackson estate has denied all of the allegations, likened the documentary to a character attack and sued HBO. And as soon as the program started, Jackson fans swarmed the #LeavingNeverland hashtag on Twitter, criticizing the documentary and Jackson’s accusers. But as the film continued on, others reacted with disgust and dismay at what they were seeing.
Here are some key points from Part One:
The lure of fame was irresistible.
The movie shows how two boys and their families were pulled deep into Jackson’s orbit through fame and show business.
Wade Robson, an aspiring dancer who became a successful choreographer as an adult, met Jackson after winning a dance competition. His mother, Joy, went so far as to move herself, Wade and her daughter to Los Angeles from their native Australia, leaving behind her husband and eldest son, on promises that Jackson would work with them to make Wade a star.
James Safechuck met Jackson when he was cast in a Pepsi commercial that featured Jackson, and at age 10, Safechuck joined Jackson on tour. His mother, Stephanie, recounts meeting celebrities like Sean Connery, flying first class and being chauffeured in limousines. James describes the otherworldly frenzy of just walking with Jackson to his car, slicing through waves of screaming fans.
Every night, he said, he would sleep in a hotel room with Jackson. His mother recounts that as the tour went on, her room got farther and farther from the one her son and Jackson shared.
“Everybody wanted to meet Michael or be with Michael,” James Safechuck says as the film opens. “He was already larger than life. And then he likes you.”
Jackson built trust with the families.
He nurtured relationships, including with the boys’ mothers. He spent hours on the phone with James and Wade, but he would also call their moms, just to talk to them.
Jackson also spent time at the Safechucks’ modest home in Simi Valley, Calif. He could have been anywhere in the world, Stephanie Safechuck said, but he chose to be with them.
“He was a son I started to take care for,” Stephanie Safechuck said. “He would spend the night, I’d wash his clothes.”
She said that she once told Jackson that she had prayed for her son’s success in getting into commercials, and that he went on to find success right away.
In response, she said, Jackson told her that he had prayed, too. He had prayed for a friend, and then he found James.