Michael Jackson Doc 'Leaving Neverland' Makes A Case Against The King Of Pop Two men who met Michael Jackson as children in the '80s allege the pop star sexually abused them for years. Reliance on personal testimony is both the strength and weakness of HBO's Leaving Neverland.

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'Leaving Neverland' Makes Powerful But One-Sided Case Against The King Of Pop

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland" hasn't aired yet, but it is already making headlines. It's a four hour film scheduled to air tonight and Monday. And it details claims by two men who say they were sexually abused as children by Michael Jackson.

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has a review. And this is where we need to tell you it includes some direct talk about the sexual abuse of young children.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Wade Robson makes his feelings about Michael Jackson clear in the early moments of "Leaving Neverland."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LEAVING NEVERLAND")

WADE ROBSON: He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew. And he also sexually abused me for seven years.

DEGGANS: James Safechuck still struggles to explain what it meant to have Michael Jackson as a close friend during his childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LEAVING NEVERLAND")

JAMES SAFECHUCK: Michael Jackson, he's larger than life. There's no stars like that now, that kind of megastar. He's the biggest entertainer. And he's a creative genius, and that creative genius thinks that you're special. What's not to like, right?

DEGGANS: Safechuck's rueful tone hints at "Leaving Neverland's" devastating story. Both Safechuck and Robson say Jackson, whom they met as kids in the 1980s, sexually abused them for years. Robson says Jackson's fame enchanted his relatives, who lowered their guard. Eventually, they even let him sleep overnight with the pop star in the same bed.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LEAVING NEVERLAND")

ROBSON: That's the trippy part is because it felt like we knew him. Like, he had been in my living room every day, in my ears via his music and his posters. Like, I'd known him, I thought. And for some reason, it didn't feel strange.

DEGGANS: Jackson, who died in 2009, always denied any abuse or misconduct with children. And his estate filed a lawsuit against HBO, releasing a statement calling the film, quote, a "one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda."

But "Leaving Neverland's" power comes from its focus on the stories of the two men, featuring in-depth original interviews with them, their mothers, their wives and a few relatives.

Robson, who went on to become a choreographer for Britney Spears and NSYNC, met Jackson as a 5-year-old in 1987 after winning a dance contest. He even danced with him on stage at a concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEGGANS: Safechuck was a child actor who costarred with Jackson in a commercial for Pepsi in 1986, rummaging through his dressing room until the pop star surprises him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL JACKSON: Looking for me?

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL JACKSON'S "BAD")

DEGGANS: Jackson's strategy, they say, was to befriend them and their families - showering them with gifts while he encouraged the boys to spend time with him alone. In one heartbreaking sequence, the film toggles between two stories. Safechuck's mother Stephanie saw nothing troubling when Jackson spent time alone with her son.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LEAVING NEVERLAND")

STEPHANIE SAFECHUCK: Playing, reading. Michael was reading - he bought him a lot of nice, good books, you know. And he'd - poems, he'd read poems to him. Just kid things. They were just doing kid things.

DEGGANS: But James Safechuck describes how the pop star used those private moments, especially when they shared the same bed, to molest him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LEAVING NEVERLAND")

J SAFECHUCK: I remember one time I was sleeping. And I woke up, and Michael said that he had performed oral sex on me while I was sleeping.

DEGGANS: Jackson was accused by a different child's family of sexual abuse in 1993. They settled. Later, Jackson was arrested on separate child molestation charges in 2003. Back then, Safechuck and Robson denied Jackson abused them. Robson even testified for the pop star in his 2005 trial, which ended in an acquittal on all charges. He says he was happy at the verdict.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LEAVING NEVERLAND")

ROBSON: I didn't believe or understand that the sexual stuff that happened between Michael and I was abuse. I didn't feel like I was hurt by it.

DEGGANS: Both men decided to reverse their stories, they say, after years of grappling with depression and emotional trauma. They each filed lawsuits against Jackson's estate that were dismissed. They plan to appeal.

"Leaving Neverland's" greatest strength - its focus on the two men's personal testimony - is also its biggest weakness. No one outside of their families is featured in original interviews, and the filmmakers didn't ask representatives from Jackson's family or his estate to speak on camera.

Several of Jackson's relatives did deny the allegations on CBS This Morning last week. The singer's nephew Taj Jackson saw one motivation for the men's stories.

TAJ JACKSON: When it's my uncle, it's almost like they see a blank check. These people felt that they're owed something.

DEGGANS: The film's director, Dan Reed, has said he wanted to focus on people who had direct knowledge of the interactions between Jackson and Robson and Safechuck. The result is a film with a very personal focus that also asks viewers to connect the stories of Robson and Safechuck with the larger, damaging worship of celebrity and fame. I'm Eric Deggans.

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