Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 13, 2013)
Every 10 years or so, another wave of “boy bands” emerges to capture the hearts of teen girls. In the late 80s/early 90s, we had New Kids on the Block. In the late 90s/early 2000s, we had Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync.
And now that we’re well into the 21st century, we have One Direction, the idols of teen girls all over the world – and probably the first UK-based act to succeed with that audience in the US since Spice Girls did their thing in the late 90s.
When Spice Girls leapt to the big screen, they did so with a mostly fictional take on their lives, but 1D takes a more traditional path with a documentary. This comes from a curious source, though, as Morgan Spurlock – best-known for fare like the fast-food harpooning Super Size Me - directs it.
Spurlock’s presence behind the camera intrigued me enough to get One Direction: This Is Us into my Blu-ray player. Through its running time, we examine all five 1D members: Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson. The film takes us to their childhood homes and lets us know a little more about the boys.
Along the way, we learn about their current lives as well, of course, We follow them on the road and see ample amounts of concert footage, most – all? – of which appears to come from their 2013 performances at London’s O2 Arena.
Without question, I’m the wrong demographic for 1D, as I don’t think they usually appeal to 46-year-old heterosexual males. That said, I occasionally find myself infatuated with pop acts who appeal to a younger set; I loved Spice Girls in their day, and I’m a huge Lady Gaga fan now.
At least since the glory days of Duran Duran, though, I’ve not become interested in the male pop acts. Honestly, I knew little about 1D until I watched Us; of course, I’d heard of them, but I’m not sure I’d listened to any of their songs.
1D seems unlikely to alter my general disinterest in boy bands, but that shouldn’t be taken as a slam on their music or performances, as I don’t think they’re bad. At least 1D alters the standard boy band template in some ways, which is nice to see. A group of X Factor contestants assembled into a band by Simon Cowell, they’re just as pre-fab as their predecessors, but they eschew matching clothes and synchronized dance moves, so we don’t see the same sort of super-slick concert performances. That makes for a nice twist on the old formula.
Not that anyone should expect 1D to offer the boy band equivalent of the Sex Pistols, however – no matter how hard Us tries to sell them as “rebels”. We hear about their music’s “rock edge” and how independent/stubborn they are, but I don’t quite buy it. Their songs are tuneful but no more “rock edged” than Hannah Montana’s, and you’ll hear clear echoes of their boy band predecessors along the way; darn if “I Would” doesn’t offer real similarities with Backstreet’s “I Want It That Way”.
While I’m sure diehard 1D fans would argue, I also don’t think any of the members do anything that differentiate themselves in terms of talent or personality. That’s one area that Spice Girls managed to trump all of the boy bands prior, contemporary and apparently future: they boasted five distinct personalities. No one ever confused one Spice for another, whereas with boy bands, the casual observer might know a Justin or a Harry but that’s about it. (I cite Harry because he’s the only 1Der I could name before I watched the movie, and that was mainly because he used to date Taylor Swift. I think Andy Warhol claimed that in the future, everyone would date Taylor Swift for 15 minutes, right?)
So as much as 1D and those in their employ attempt to convince us that they somehow break the boy band mold, I don’t see them as a substantial departure. For all their purported independence, edginess and rebellion, they still seem like perky young men who produce cheery, easily-digested pop music.
And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, really. It’s easy for cranky old men like me to crap on acts like 1D but that would miss their purpose, as they don’t exist for people like me. Sure, I’d like to see them exhibit more of the edge that they claim to boast, but if they don’t, it’s no big deal. There’s room in the world for lightweight pop such as this.
So my middle-aged-man opinion of 1D’s music is “could be better, could be worse” – how does This Is Us hold up as a documentary? Not all that well, unfortunately – and not solely because Spurlock ignores his usual devilish sense of mischief. I’ve not read interviews with Spurlock to find out why he took this gig; I suspect the answer is “money money money”, but that’s just a semi-cynical guess. Maybe he has kids who love 1D and he wanted to make something for them.
Whatever the rationale, one gets no sense of Spurlock’s personality or perspective in Us. That’s not a huge surprise; Spurlock’s snarky but he’s not Michael Moore, so I wouldn’t expect him to bite the hand that feeds him.
Nonetheless, it’s tough to figure out why the producers brought Spurlock on board, as there’s nothing about Us that couldn’t have been done by any number of other directors. We get a perfectly perfunctory take on the 1Ders and their lives, with a sanitized feel along the way.
No, I don’t expect Us to give us a “warts and all” view ala Madonna’s Truth or Dare, but I might’ve liked something with a little more personality than this. Us basically acts as a long commercial for the band. The 1Ders are all best pals and they love their fans and they’re awesome and talented and etc.
Is such a sensibility unexpected from a program of this sort? Nope, but that doesn’t mean I have to like the happy happy hug hug hug material on display. Heck, if Katy Perry can manage to show actual insights into her life and personality, I don’t know why the 1D boys can’t as well.
That said, Us manages to be moderately involving for a little while. Since I didn’t know anything about their background, I liked the parts that looked at how they came together and rose through the pop ranks. A few of the biographical elements had some merit as well.
Unfortunately, these became fewer and farther between as the movie progressed. After the first act’s “rise to fame” moments, it essentially becomes a repetitive tour montage. We see the 1Ders on the road and on stage with little to differentiate any of the various settings or elements.
As for the concert material, it works fine, though the live footage comes with two drawbacks. For one, it excludes complete songs; we get snippets and that’s all. Also, the 1Ders look at the cameras far too often. This gets tedious and takes away from the impact of the performances, as it makes them feel less “real”.
Not that anyone should anticipate a whole lot of gritty reality from One Direction: This Is Us. It provides just the kind of fluffy concert documentary one would expect, which makes it neither bad nor good, honestly; it’s a long puff piece that gives us a hint of the band’s charms but lacks any form of depth or introspection that might make it special.