Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat before the comments section gets mobbed like Harry Styles lost in a Forever 21 on Black Friday: If you are a One Direction fan, you will love "This is Us."
There are plenty of shots of the meticulously groomed pop stars shirtless and in their skivvies. They play all of their catchy hits. They say cute and charming things about their families, their newfound superstardom, and most importantly, their maniacally dedicated fans. Swooning, screaming and joyful tears are pretty much a guarantee (I know this because I watched the movie in a public showing with over a hundred fans, and the screaming began before the lights even finished dimming. Props to them, though; when the movie actually started, they became quite civil).
So those already converted to the Church of the Melodious Swoopy Hairs will have much to praise. They’ll be screaming. Everyone else, however, will likely be left snoring through what amounts to an exceptionally produced – and exceptionally shallow – ad.
"1D3D" (omg) follows the band as they fly across the globe for their massive world tour. For the uninitiated, there’s Harry Styles (the Heartthrob), Zayn Malik (the Mysterious One), Louis Tomlinson (the Goofy One), Niall Horan (the One Who Occasionally Plays the Guitar) and Liam Payne (the … uh … Fifth One?). Together, they tour exotic locales and perform the hits for crowds filled with sobbing fangirls and Martin Scorsese. Wait, what?!
In between numbers, the boys are seen having fun behind the scenes, playing harmless pranks on their mates and their loyal fans, enjoying the sights and giddily goofing around instead of learning choreography. Every now and then, they talk to the camera about life on the road, their origins on the British "The X Factor" and, uh, having more fun.
Their mentor Simon Cowell (also one of the film’s producers) is briefly interviewed, as well as a few music experts, who dubiously describe One Direction as "dangerous" and "anarchic." Yeah, maybe compared to a marshmallow. I bet those guys are having a hard time finding anyone to sit next to in the music critic lunchroom since the film has come out.
The only word fitting for the boys is really (you guessed it) fun. "This is Us" has one mission, and it’s to show the guys messing around and having a good time. And they do seem like an energetic, affable bunch, animatedly playing around with the throngs of fans surrounding every hotel and rampaging backstage in golf carts and skateboards. The film’s best moments, in fact, come when the boys are seen casually interviewing each other, asking about what they’d do if they weren’t in the group, their legacy and one member’s almost early departure from the band.
That these moments come during clearly staged scenarios, like while fishing and camping, points to the film’s big problem. For all of 1D’s seemingly spontaneous and silly behavior, everything in "This is Us" feels very carefully managed.
Star documentarian Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me") has never been a particularly insightful filmmaker, normally sticking to entertainingly showy if shallow musings on topics of interest. But he does have mainstream respect and a known name, which might inspire hope for something more inquisitive and a bit braver than the norm. Instead, he stays glued to the standard template of its recent brethren, like "Katy Perry: Part of Me" or "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never."
There are plentiful shots of fans praising the band and talking about how it changed their lives. Archived news footage of One Direction mania is dredged up to convince any non-converts in the crowd that yes, One Direction is famous. They talk about the journey to stardom, complete with the mildest of setbacks. The tour is tiring, and their families miss them, but it’s okay because the fans are just oh so worth it.
And, of course, there’s the furiously underlined message that, though they may be famous, they’re still down-to-earth guys, complete with a trip to their humble old stomping grounds for maximum normalcy.
Any real life issues or remotely controversial (read: interesting) material is neglected (don’t bother asking if Taylor Swift comes up). Any hardships are of the PR-friendly variety – they’re too goofy! They’re too dedicated to their fans! – and still merely touched upon before they're instantly buried under a sea of gratuitous fan praise and shirtless shots.
Spurlock films the concert footage energetically, with confetti, inflated balls and little CG flourishes flying off the stage and at the audience. But no amount of 3-D spaceships and flying confetti can hide the fact that a documentary with no depth, story, insights or characters can get pretty long and boring after a certain point (which, for most casual viewers and haggard parents, will be about the halfway mark).
Even compared to previous glorified pop star promotional videos, "This is Us" is feather light on actual content or insight. None of these boys have particularly interesting stories or backgrounds. They might; they’re just not on display here. The safe, brand-focused formula ends up homogenizing the five boys into an indistinct clump of fun-loving handsomeness. The us teased in the film’s title remains a mystery.
The only thing I really learned after 92 minutes was the only thing more carefully crafted than their ice cream swirl hairdos is their image.
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