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'Leaving Neverland' review: Riveting story that's tough to watch

Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in a scene

Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in a scene  from "Leaving Neverland." Credit: HBO/Dominique Desrue

DOCUMENTARY "Leaving Neverland"

WHEN|WHERE Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO; both parts premiere on HBO streaming platforms Sunday at 10 p.m.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT In 2013, a choreographer named Wade Robson appeared on NBC’s “Today” show claiming he had been sexually abused by Michael Jackson from the age of 7 to 14. Robson’s story made a splash but raised legitimate questions. Hadn’t Robson once defended Jackson against such allegations from another child? Why did Robson wait until after Jackson’s death to backpedal? And didn’t his posthumous lawsuit against the singer prove that he simply wanted money?

In “Leaving Neverland,” filmmaker Dan Reed lets Robson tell his story in painstaking, gut-wrenching detail — and that’s not all. Reed also sits with James Safechuck, a man who for the first time publicly tells a nearly identical story.

MY SAY “Leaving Neverland” may strike some viewers as a tough watch, both for its four-hour length and its verbal descriptions of child sexual abuse. Be prepared.

The accusations made by Robson and Safechuck, both in their 30s, echo each other; the two men even bear a passing resemblance and speak in similarly soft, measured tones. Robson, a native Australian, and Safechuck, from the Southern California suburbs, were budding child entertainers in the mid-1980s, when Jackson was at the peak of his fame, riding the success of “Thriller” (still one of the best-selling albums of all time) and enjoying a record-breaking sponsorship deal with Pepsi. The boys separately crossed Jackson’s radar and found themselves drawn into his whirlwind life of limo rides, shopping sprees and famous friends. Slowly, the boys say, Jackson earned their trust, then initiated them into secret, sexual relationships.

“Leaving Neverland” answers a common question about Jackson’s accusers over the years: What kind of parents let their children sleep in a grown man’s bed? Both the boys’ mothers say they were dazzled and flattered by Jackson’s attention — as many of us would be if a global superstar constantly dropped by for dinner. Today, the mothers speak of deep regret and guilt; they still seem slightly dazed, as if by a sudden blow. “All those wonderful memories,” Safechuck’s mother says. “It was all based on the suffering of my son.”

“Leaving Neverland,” named for Jackson’s kid-friendly theme-park of a ranch in California, exhumes an old scandal but couldn’t be more timely. Time and again it echoes today’s #MeToo movement and stories of predatory sex within the worlds of entertainment, sports and politics. How do these people get away with it? Jackson’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, provides part of the answer when he promises on television to “hammer” any accusers who dare come forward. Shame and guilt help keep abuse survivors quiet; a star-struck public also does its part. (Jackson’s estate has filed a lawsuit against HBO over Reed's film.)

“Leaving Neverland” has justifiably drawn criticism for being one-sided. It notes Robson’s lawsuit only briefly and never mentions that Safechuck filed a suit of his own. Those are flaws, but the stories of these two men are too compelling to ignore.

BOTTOM LINE A riveting story of childhood sexual abuse and its devastating effects on survivors and families.

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