I’m sure the lads in One Direction are nice guys in real life. I can’t exactly knock their well crafted, manufactured to death style of vaguely inoffensive power pop. They have a legion of fans that would do anything for them and have made them one of the biggest success stories of the social media era. That’s more of a testament to being one of the best marketed acts in the history of music rather than them actually being very talented, but it’s all good. I’m not here to judge the band, but rather review the big screen “inside look” at the teen heartthrob phenoms One Direction: This is Us, which as one might have guessed is more of a commercial for the band than a serious film.
From the (now weird to say) Academy Award nominated documentarian Morgan Spurlock, 1DTIU3D follows the boys along on their first major worldwide tour, and how they are coping with success. Part concert film, part behind the scenes EPK kit, and full of weak personal insights that could be gleaned from any authorized or unauthorized book or website devoted to the band (or even Wikipedia), Zayn Malik, Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Louis Tomilnson, and Liam Payne are depicted as just five young, good looking, regular dudes who work hard, love their fans, and miss their families.
Spurlock sold out as a filmmaker ages ago. Even before the film where he actively talks about selling out, he was probably the perfect choice for this gig. (Also because he apparently got turned down on his offers to direct similar films for Justin Beiber and Katy Perry.) His assembly is workmanlike, bland, and totally in service to the band without a single controversial or off putting thing to say about them or their success aside from a really bizarre bit of KFC product placement in the middle of a song and having a neurologist stop to explain how dopamine works.
A lot of that might be thanks to the rigorous stranglehold placed on the production by the band’s founder and creator Simon Cowell acting as producer, showing up here sipping tea out of fine china and talking about how he pretty much knew these five X-Factor runner-ups would become a worldwide phenomenon if packaged together and made into a Voltron-like supergroup of adorableness. At one point when he flanks the boys on stage of the TV show he produces where they mysteriously and inexplicably got voted off (probably shadily to not seem like there’s a conflict of interest, but that’s speculative and neither here nor there), he looks like a pro wrestling manager with a stable of young men doing something equally phony. When the head of 1D’s label comes out and says there’s something “slightly anarchic” about the band, it’s quite possibly one of the most groan worthy, flat out lies spoken in a film this year.
For the film’s more introspective moments, Spurlock focuses predominantly on Zayn and Harry, a.k.a. The Mysterious One and The Fun Loving Jokester. Everyone else gets paid lip service, and oddly has more familial interaction, but those two seem to be the guys Cowell and company are grooming more heavily for potential future solo careers once the bottom drops out of the 1D juggernaut. They go through their lives on the road, goofing off like kids normally do, hiding from swarming fans, goofing off with fans, and it all couldn’t possibly feel more staged and fake if the shot list was handed to the audience on the way in to follow along. This isn’t a documentary. It’s a document of what the producers want people to hear and what the least discerning fans of the group already know but want to hear again anyway.
That’s all well and good for fans that won’t remotely care what I have to say on a critical level about the movie and just want to sit around in a chronic state of denial that anything about the group could ever be fake. I like to watch wrestling, so I know all about suspension of disbelief for the sake of entertainment. Where the film really stumbles and falls on its face are in the actual concert sequences, which do the band no favours at all. I can’t think of blander stage presences than these five guys. Their entire move set while singing simply consists of them guys either sitting and looking pensive or just pacing back and forth on stage. There’s a bit where their choreographer shows up to say they were learning some new moves, but that guy should be fired because there’s no way he even taught them anything remotely useful in terms of conveying emotion to an audience. I think Harry makes a kind of half-hearted leap into the air during one of the songs, but that’s it. It might have been one of the other interchangeable on stage parts, but I do know one of them at least tried something slightly more than a brisk walk from left to right. Spurlock over compensates for their lack of personality with countless shots of screaming girls in the crowd lovingly singing back every lyric and pointless 3D computer effects that almost push the band out of the frame entirely. The best I can say about any of their performances is that their cover of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” is pretty decent.
There are a few good moments here and there. Martin Scorsese and Chris Rock show up backstage at a Madison Square Garden stop and have to awkwardly talk about their admiration for the band. It’s funny to watch the band record some songs on the road in hotel rooms because their promoters won’t let them stop to work in a proper studio. There’s a funny bit where Harry is forced to put on jeans so tight they rip almost immediately. A couple of the boys go fishing and in the one brief bit of candour they can offer up talk briefly about how hard it was to get into the rhythm of being a manufactured pop group.
One Direction, as the movie is quick and frequent to point out, has gone to number one in more than 35 countries in their brief lifespan. “That’s something not even The Beatles could do!” exclaims nearly everyone interviewed. There are precisely two similarities between One Direction and The Beatles that could ever really hold any weight. First, The Beatles didn’t have that much stage presence themselves (I mean, have you SEEN that Ed Sullivan performance in all its rigid glory?), but they made up for it in musicianship – something 1D could never hope to attain. Second, they have both had movies made about their success. But while The Beatles had the fictionalized and fun A Hard Day’s Night to start their big screen careers, the 1D boys only have this lukewarm piece that might as well be fictionalized. At least then it might have been interesting outside of the band’s core devotees.