Review: One Direction: This Is Us
Let's go crazy, crazy, crazy 'till we see the sun
I know we only met, but let's pretend it's love
And never, never, never stop for anyone
Tonight let's get some, and live while we're young
Lyrics from "Live While We're Young”
Written by: Carl Falk, Savan Kotecha, and Rami Yacoub
Performed by: One Direction
If you're not a teenage girl or the parent of a teenage girl, you may not be too intimately familiar with One Direction, the world's current reigning bubblegum boyband, and the pop obsession that will instigate puberty for millions. One Direction, made up of five random 20-odd-year-old blokes from England and Ireland, is the brainchild of pop impresario Simon Cowell, who assembled five cute-as-a-button also-rans from his song competition gameshow “The X-Factor,” and built a prefab media phenomenon. Since 2010, One Direction has exploded in popularity to the point of selling out Madison Square Garden. They now live a life where they are constantly being followed by screaming pubescent girls the world over.
Morgan Spurlock's One Direction: This Is Us is a shamelessly puffy, completely slight, but harmlessly entertaining rockumentary that follows the five members of the band on various legs of their immensely popular 2012 world tour. It's easy to dismiss this film and others of its ilk (Katy Perry: Part of Me, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) as extraneous, worshipful fan service, only intended to build the brand of an already overpackaged pop idol – and to be sure, This Is Us is most assuredly that – but these movies also, intentionally or not, tend to provide some cultural insight to outsiders like me, who don't tend to listen to bubblegum pop. The drier and more analytical parts of the outsider's mind can be devoted to an anthropological study of musical trends.
Conclusion of anthropological study: Young girls love vaguely sexualized young men who gather in groups of five, and sing about making out. But only with hands over the clothes. They like music that, in the words of briefly glimpsed record execs, have a "slight edge," and are only "vaguely dangerous." They tend to scream and lose themselves in their pop obsession. None of this, however, is new to anyone who has ever heard of a particular British band from the 1960s, also known for their hair and skinny pants. That band, however, had better songs and played their own instruments.
The five boys in One Direction are Niall Horan (the blonde one), Zayn Malik (the swarthy one), Liam Payne (the cute one), Harry Styles (the funny one), and Louis Tomlinson (the clean one), and This Is Us is very keen on revealing their characters, in a very clean and carefully controlled manner. There are no dark moments for these boys. They won on a gameshow, and have spent the last several years soaking up fame and millions upon millions of dollars, thanks to (according to the film) an unprecedented presence on Twitter.
Indeed, their meteoric rise was so large and so rapid, when it comes to interviewing the boys themselves, they seem a little baffled and overwhelmed. Out of their league. They are each very comfortable with performing, and feed hungrily on the adulation of their fans (who wouldn't?), but often have to sit down for a moment and ask each other “Do you think there will ever be a time when we're not doing this?” The boys seems like good friends who are clinging to each other for stability. When they are cornered in the streets of some foreign city they must hide out in a Nike store until enough bodyguards can arrive to escort them back to safety. The 90 minutes a boyband spends trapped inside a store would have made a good film unto itself.
Spurlock also interviews the boys' parents, and each of them reveals something a mite tragic about the fame machine. They are pleased that their sons are famous and talented sex symbols for 13-year-olds everywhere, and they certainly love the wealth, but there is a sense that their sons are now gone. That they have vanished into a giant Cowell-driven, money-perpetuated fame machine that threatens to rob them of their actual personalities. How often have we seen early fame ruin the lives of young people?
Luckily, the boys seem pretty down-to-Earth and largely pragmatic, trying really hard not to give into the blind hedonism or human disconnect that comes with living in the upper echelons of fame. Neither they nor the movie as a whole can offer any sort of self-awareness as to One Direction's place in popular culture, but it can, at the very least, give the impression that these blokes are fun-loving kids who are just regular people like you and me.
Sex? Drugs? Drink? Conflict? Soul-searching? The thought that they may not be young for too much longer? We'll have none of that in our PG-rated, 92-minute film. But then, One Direction doesn't really need it. Their affability carries them most of the way.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. If you want to buy him a gift (and I know you do), you can visit his Amazon Wish List.