Getting Morgan Spurlock to direct the latest 3D pop music doc-buster seems like a smart move if you’ve seen Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope. That film made it clear he has an understanding of fan culture, and really there’s not a whole lot of difference between the hardcore attendees of a comic book convention and the screaming teens at a boy band concert besides the focus of their obsession.
And as with that doc, here the guy best known for immersing himself first-person-style in Super Size Me and other film and TV works stays incognito behind the camera as he follows the young act on a world tour. To some that may be disappointing, that One Direction: This Is Us doesn’t track what it’s like for a grown man to experience nothing but One Direction concerts every day for a month. With this film, you’re lucky if you hear his voice even once briefly from off screen.
Spurlock may be one of the biggest name brands in documentary, but he has nothing on the star power of his subjects here. Even Martin Scorsese and Chris Rock, in backstage cameos as fathers of fans, appear to be nobodies compared to Harry, Niall, Liam, Louis and Zayne. Chances are, the majority of the audience for This Is Us won’t even understand why those older men should receive screen time at all, taking attention away from their idols and their true fellow devotees.
The film is for One Direction fans, obviously. Business-wise it doesn’t need to be anything more considering that that audience will alone make This Is Us one of the top-grossing documentaries of all time. But coming both from an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and in the wake of a transcendent pop music doc like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, it deserves the expectation for it to be more than mere fan-service. Besides, there are a number of One Direction “documentaries” already available on Amazon for the fan demo to enjoy. And the heightened spectacle of 3D just isn’t enough on its own anymore.
Why we non-fans should care whether This Is Us is any good or not is the same reason we should care whether any documentary is of quality. We rarely see docs just because we’re interested in the subject matter. At the same time, we ought to have some interest in the history of pop culture because it is such a large part of life. To a degree of comparison, it’s worth our while to see and understand the makings of Bieber and One Direction as much as it is to understand the makings of Adolf Hitler and Bill Clinton and Bob Dylan and countless other celebrity subjects.
Both Bieber and the boys in One Direction have origin stories that are significant to the present era of the music industry and will be remembered for this down the line. For the solo singer it was his discovery through YouTube, while for One Direction it is their construction by Simon Cowell out of five individual contestants on the British singing competition TV show X Factor. And for each, fan support grew very, very quickly with social media and other Internet channels. More than ever, pop music is driven not just by the marketability to teeny boppers but from the way they in turn help carry that marketing along virally as “super fans.”
Spurlock starts off with this back story with help from an interview with Cowell (who is also one of the film’s producers). He intercuts comments from the boys addressing their auditions and how important it was for them to hang out and become mates once tossed together, before having to think of themselves primarily as co-workers, and how great it was that not one of them turned out to be a jerk.
But that tale is short, and there isn’t much in the way of a narrative trajectory for the rest of the movie to work with other than the simple, repetitive situation of them going from city to city and encountering similar mobs everywhere they go, acting mischievous to each other, their handlers and even their fanbase all the way.
It’s quite refreshing when we step away from the tour and its spatter of incomplete live performances for quiet little scenes of fishing or camping or off-day trips home. Even if these all come across as staged or maybe at least prompted as far as the conversations go, mostly about how they can’t believe their fortunate sprint to fame and how they don’t expect it to last (one of the boys says it’s like he’s “Benjamin Button,” achieving so much early and then presuming he’ll later settle down with a family and normal job). While there’s little story in the film, the angle This Is Us goes for is that the One Direction guys are unbelievably humble, grateful and highly self-aware.
That self-awareness makes them prone to being rather subversive personalities on screen, somewhere between the Beatles and the Jackass gang (they like to dress up as old people and go undercover to prank fans and the public). Some of their initial shtick is that they aren’t like any other boy band, that they think the very concept is sort of ridiculous and they’re just here to have fun with what they’ve been lassoed into while they can.
They don’t really dance, they’re not into a lot of styling and posing and image-making, and they certainly don’t want to be characters created by the industry. They want to be seen as down to earth, just a couple of guys. And they are. What the film misses in substance is made up for in charisma, as these are five very likable subjects.
So that makes it easy to see why they’re so popular. The modesty and regular guy image fits with their music, particularly their biggest hit, “What Makes You Beautiful,” which celebrates a girl’s lack of vanity and conventional beauty. While that identifiable lack resonates loudly with fans, so can their fun-loving approachability presented in this film.
If you see the movie with a crowd, you’ll hear the usual shrieks whenever one of the boys appears in only his underwear and the usual awwwwws when a baby picture is shown, reactions that are requisite with showcases of teen idol fame, but there’s also a “rowdy” yet mundane commonness conveyed here that is met with more quiet reflection. Perhaps the bareness of the material is pertinent to the way we’re supposed to see them, as sort of common, but not.
The problem with This Is Us is that it keeps on stressing and retreading that point of how what “this is them” is, is so seemingly normal and just a chance of luck, and it all starts to become pretty redundant after a while. On top of that, their concert footage isn’t too cinematic except for a few added-in 3D effects during a couple songs (one of which recalls the graphics of Spurlock’s Comic-Con doc), nor does it have enough variety to keep from feeling as repetitive as the other material.
For the fans, that will be okay. They’ll get what they want here, which is a close-up view on the lives of the five members of One Direction, and sound bites in which the guys claim a desire to meet and talk to all their followers, and a whole lot of laughs. They probably deserve more, and maybe it’s just too early in the group’s career for there to be any more. I’d watch another One Direction movie in the future, though, because they’re quite watchable. Given all their Beatles comparisons, I’d actually love to see them do something with a plot next time. Well, as much as you’d call some of the scenarios of the Fab Four’s films “a plot,” anyway.