Nearly six weeks after its much-talked about premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the controversial Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland is about to air here in the UK.
The film will be screened by Channel 4 in two parts, with the first airing on Wednesday 6 March at 9pm and the second following at the same time the following evening.
But why has there been so much fuss? And why did the Jackson family call on Channel 4 to axe plans to air it? Here’s everything you need to know…
What is Leaving Neverland about?
The documentary, which takes its name from Michael Jackson’s sprawling California ranch home, focuses on two men’s separate, graphic accounts of sexual abuse allegedly endured at the hands of the pop star.
Their claims have been vehemently denied by the Jackson estate (and we’ll detail their full responses later).
Who are the two men?
The first is James Safechuck, who met Jackson when he appeared alongside the singer in a 1986 Pepsi commercial. The Daily Beast reports that the documentary sees Safechuck explain that Jackson invited him to his trailer.
Jackson then welcomed the whole Safechuck family to his home, befriending the parents, and then inviting them all on tour with him. During this time, Safechuck’s mum, Stephanie, says she allowed her 10-year-old to sleep in a bed with Jackson.
Safechuck says it was at this point that the sexual abuse started, giving graphic accounts, which include kissing and oral sex.
The second man is choreographer Wade Robson, who first met Jackson when he won a dance competition at the age of 5.
It was another two years before they would meet again, when Jackson invited the Robson family to Neverland. When the family went to California, Robson’s parents agreed for him to stay with Jackson while they continued their holiday and he alleges that the abuse began then.
Both Safechuck and Robson have previously publicly accused Jackson of sexual abuse with the latter saying he didn’t realise he had been abused until reconsidering the events during a therapy session in 2012.
When Jackson was on trial after being accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy in 2003, Robson was a main witness for the defence and stated under oath that he had never been abused by him.
How long is it?
Leaving Neverland clocks in at a total of 4 hours long, which is why Channel 4 are screening it over two nights.
What happened at the Sundance premiere?
Prior to its debut screening, Jackson fans tried to make Sundance organisers cancel the event by writing to the festival’s corporate sponsors and asking them to withdraw support, in light of the fact Leaving Neverland was on the programme.
“We don’t currently plan to comment publicly or engage in the discourse around Leaving Neverland and would recommend that you do the same,” they advised. “We plan to proceed with the screening as announced.”
Fearing crowds of protestors would turn up at the screening, organisers employed extra security. On the day, just a handful turned up and everything went ahead as planned.
One thing that soon became apparent though, was just how detailed the film’s content is. Before pressing play, organisers issued a trigger warning to attendees and told them mental health professionals would be available to talk to them afterwards.
It was screened in two halves and a HuffPost reporter in attendance wrote that: “Midway through the Sundance screening, which was divided into two parts, reporters and film critics remarked at the documentary’s emotional intensity.
“Audience members spent intermission walking around in shock.”
What have the Jackson family said?
Ahead of the premiere, representatives for the estate issued a statement which labelled Leaving Neverland “yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson”.
Following its debut, they released a second statement. It read: “Michael always turned the other cheek, and we have always turned the other cheek when people have gone after members of our family — that is the Jackson way.
“But we can’t just stand by while this public lynching goes on…. Michael is not here to defend himself, otherwise these allegations would not have been made.”
And when Channel 4 then announced they would be screening it in the UK, the Jackson estate put in a fresh plea, with an open letter.
In their letter, given to the Associated Press, they wrote: “I think we can all agree that the false allegations being made in your ‘documentary’ are ‘significant allegations’. It is hard to imagine more significant accusations that can possibly be made against anyone.”
What have critics made of it?
Critics in attendance at Sundance gave Leaving Neverland a standing ovation and reviews published since have also been largely favourable.
Praising the director’s approach, Consequence of Sound’s critic wrote: “Leaving Neverlandgrants Wade and Jimmy the opportunity to tell their own stories, and examine the damage that their respective childhoods did to their families and their own lives in the years that would follow.”
The Telegraph added: “What elevates Reed’s film beyond simple, lurid headlines are the interviews with both men’s families [...] whose contributions paint a picture of a structured, sophisticated and well-practiced campaign of grooming by Jackson, not only of his alleged young victims, but of their entire families.”
Leaving Neverland airs tonight and tomorrow (Thursday 7 March) on Channel 4 at 9pm. Watch the trailer below...