One Direction: This is Us
Directed by Morgan Spurlock. With Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Jon Shone, Dan Richards, Sandy Beales, Josh Devine.
A 90-minute puff piece in the guise of a tour documentary, One Direction: This Is Us (its title a none-too subtle reference to the Michael Jackson concert doc This Is It) purports to tell the story of the record-setting UK boy band cobbled together from X-Factor contestants but contains all the depth of a 15-minute MTV promo.
Should we have expected anything more than endless shots of backstage boys-will-be boys fun and screaming, ravenous fans? I did. The director of This Is Us is none other than Morgan Spurlock, the anti-corporate crusader who previously made the revealing Super Size Me and product placement-focused The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
And now, one could say, he’s become a corporate shill, feeding this product to the multiplexes (and – as opposed to concert film or backstage documentary – this is a product, intended to sell us on the band). If McDonald’s is poisonous junk food that is slowly killing us, then One Direction may well be the pop music equivalent.
And yet, there is a fascinating story to be told here: Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson, the generally likable boys behind the One Direction product, were all plucked from obscurity after making the grade on UK’s X-Factor; put together as a group by Simon Cowell after originally competing as individuals, the group lost out once more.
But “the fans” demanded more, and the band gained popularity in the UK, then Europe, and then the rest of the world; in their first two years of formation, the band had (allegedly) become more popular, more quickly, than The Beatles. While the film keeps reminding us that “the fans” are responsible for their popularity, we know it’s actually clever marketing by producer Cowell, filling in a huge gap in the clean-cut boy band world. Clearly, there’s still a market for this type of thing.
That’s the real story behind the band, but it’s something that This Is Us completely ignores; Cowell is rarely seen on screen, though his presence looms over the proceedings. The love for these boys is organic, according to the film: while we can rarely tell them apart, they are the Chosen Ones.
In the film’s most revealing moments, the boy’s working class families reflect on the fame and fortune that has befallen them. In one teary-eyed moment, a mother recounts on how her teenage son has been home three times in the two years since going off to the X-Factor.
Moments like that, however, are few and far between; most of the behind-the-scenes action focuses on the boys fishing, playing, pranking, sleeping, chatting about how they are all best friends and will be together forever, and manipulating their legion of fans with an appearance by the window and raise of the hands.
Absent from This Is Us is any hint of personal relationships the boys might have, of drug or alcohol use, of any in-band conflict, any original thoughts or opinions, or anything, really, resembling any kind of conflict whatsoever (there are some interesting angles to take here too – Malik is a practicing Muslim, and Styles is a former beau of Taylor Swift – that are left completely unexplored). These boys are clean-cut saints who love their mothers and adore their fans as much as their fans adore them.
Spurlock, in what should be recognized as a considerable achievement, manages to capture all this without the slightest hint of irony.
The concert scenes, then – which take up roughly half of the film – represent a welcome relief from the bubbly oversell. Despite the questionable quality of the music (only a brief cover of Wheatus’ Teenage Dirtbag brought some contrast from the pop overkill), and the lame (non) choreography featuring the boys limply strutting their stuff across the stage, the concert sequences can’t help but reveal what the rest of the film tries to obscure: this glossy, packaged product blatently sold to their legion of shrieking teen fans.
Still, it’s a relentlessly over-produced affair – with knockout post-production 3D effects flying at the audience during the concert scenes – that eventually becomes wearying. It’s a good thing the film runs a brisk 90 minutes; I’m not sure how much more a non-fan could take.
In Super Size Me, Spurlock famously went on an all-McDonald’s diet for a month and documented the hazardous effects it had on his health. I’d love to see a documentary covering the effects that making this film had on his psyche.