Michael Jackson documentary puts star back under microscope

Following 'Leaving Neverland's' Sundance screening, there was a standing ovation for Michael Jackson accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck

FILE - In this May 25, 2005 file photo, Michael Jackson arrives at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse for his child molestation trial in Santa Maria, Calif. A documentary film about two boys who accused Michael Jackson of sexual abuse is set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. The Sundance Institute announced the addition of “Leaving Neverland” and “The Brink,” a documentary about Steve Bannon, to its 2019 lineup on Wednesday. The Sundance Film Festival kicks off on Jan 24 and runs through Feb. 4. (Aaron Lambert/Santa Maria Times via AP, Pool)
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Michael Jackson, whose music remains ubiquitous nearly a decade after his death, is under fresh scrutiny.

The singer's alleged sexual crimes are being re-examined in a four-hour documentary, Leaving Neverland, which screened Friday at the Sundance Film Festival.

Following the screening, Jackson's accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck stood on stage for a Q&A, where they were greeted with a "solemn" standing ovation.

Wade Robson, from left, director Dan Reed and James Safechuck pose for a portrait to promote the film "Leaving Neverland" at the Salesforce Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)
From left to right: Wade Robson, 'Leaving Neverland' director Dan Reed and James Safechuck at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah. AP

In the two-part docuseries, now-adult Robson and Wade allege they were victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Jackson when they were children.

"We can't change what happened to us. And we can't do anything about Michael," Robson said in a Q&A.

The documentary is slated to air on HBO in the US and Channel 4 in the UK later this year.

High security screening 

Leaving Neverland was shown under police presence, an unusual circumstance for the festival.

However, there was a smaller protest presence at the festival than expected, with police out-numbering the protesters at the Sundance screening.

Signs in support of Michael Jackson are seen outside of the premiere of the "Leaving Neverland" Michael Jackson documentary film at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)
Signs in support of Michael Jackson are seen outside of the premiere of the 'Leaving Neverland' at Sundance Film Festival. AP

During breaks from the screening, critics suggested that the allegations – based on accounts from Jackson’s accusers – may be explosive.

"It's so sexually explicit that counselors are in the lobby," Mara Reinstein, film critic at Us Weekly, said on Twitter.

For the music industry, the documentary brings a fresh test of how to deal with controversial artists. Just last week, Sony Corp's RCA label scrubbed R. Kelly from its lineup. The R&B singer was also the subject of a high-profile documentary, which included accounts of alleged sex crimes.

In the case of Jackson, the stakes may be higher. He’s one of the best-selling artists of all time and remains a staple of streaming services.

Denials from Jackson's estate 

The artist's estate has sought to quash Leaving Neverland, and his official Twitter account slammed HBO for agreeing to air the film.

“In 1992, Michael gave HBO their highest-rated special ever,” the tweet read. “Now, to repay him they give a voice to admitted liars.”

"Tellingly, the director admitted at the Sundance Film Festival that he limited his interviews only to these accusers and their families. In doing so, he intentionally avoided interviewing numerous people over the years who spent significant time with Michael Jackson and have unambiguously stated that he treated children with respect and did nothing hurtful to them,"  Jim Bates, a spokesman for the estate, said in an emailed statement on Saturday.

And representatives from Jackson's estate went on to compare the documentary to “the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death.”