Good luck scoring concert tickets to the latest teen-steam sensation to trundle off the boy-band assembly line, One Direction. They’re as hard to come by as a rainbow-colored unicorn. Fortunately, both Hollywood and the British quintet’s money-minting Svengali, Simon Cowell, have hatched a backup plan: a behind-the-scenes 3-D extravaganza called One Direction: This Is Us. The film is part of a new breed of movies, like Katy Perry: Part of Me and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, that pretend to give rabid fans (and their heel-dragging parents) a privileged peek behind the curtain. But all they really offer are sanitized, squeaky-clean affirmations of what these pop juggernauts’ fans already know. They exist solely to stoke the furnaces of commerce and move more units.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, revelatory music documentaries like Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter gave us warts-and-all portraits of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones that those artists couldn’t have been happy with. Dylan came across as a petulant jerk, while the Stones were painted as hapless co-conspirators in the death of one of their fans at Altamont, where they’d hired the rowdy Hells Angels as security. So much more than mere celluloid press releases, these were real movies made in an era less defined by ironfisted publicists and corporate-friendly images, when access wasn’t a four-letter word. That all changed in 1991 with Madonna’s Truth or Dare, which, similar to the Material Girl herself, pulled off the brilliant balancing act of allowing you to feel like you were witnessing something intimate (such as her and her dancers’ racy backstage high jinks) while never making ticket buyers feel like they were saps — submissive cogs in her will-to-power machine.
The talent of the five likable best mates in One Direction can’t be denied. They harmonize like a chorus of impossibly cute angels. And on songs including ”What Makes You Beautiful” and ”Up All Night,” they ooze so much stage presence that every teen and tween girl in the audience feels like the lads are singing directly to her and only her. But is This Is Us a good film? Well, that’s another question entirely. Directed by Morgan Spurlock, the merry prankster behind 2004’s fast-food exposé Super Size Me, the movie is a chronicle of the rise of five young kids who hit the pop culture lottery. They each tried out individually for the British TV competition The X Factor, didn’t make the cut, and were saved by Cowell, who had the commercial genius to recognize that the sum of their golden voices was greater than the parts. He alchemized them into boy-band gold.
All of this is dispatched pretty briskly in the beginning of the film because any fan forking over 10 bucks is familiar with this origin story (not to mention the particular personality traits of Harry, Liam, Niall, Zayn, and Louis). From there the movie zips through a string of flashy concert clips of the group crooning their hits; reaction shots of young girls crying, screaming their lungs out, and going ape; and footage of the boys acting up on tour buses and sharing their innermost thoughts about their fans in front of campfires. It’s those last bits that Directioners will eat up like Valentine’s Day candy hearts. Yet these confessional ”unstaged” moments feel more choreographed than the group’s dance moves. Which is a shame, because if anyone could have given us an inside look at the guys in the band, it’s a subversive filmmaker like Spurlock. But This Is Us comes off as an impersonal job for hire — a paycheck assignment. Spurlock seems too scared to bite the hands that are feeding him (although he claims he didn’t have final cut). Not once in the film’s hour-and-a-half running time do we see a disagreement among the mates, catch a glimpse of them partying, or overhear any of them making a single reference to a girlfriend. (Something has to be informing all of those love songs they sing.) Instead, we’re treated to what’s essentially a slick, airbrushed promo reel of a bunch of genuinely sweet superstars who can’t believe their dumb luck. That’s charming. But it’s also a little boring. What it’s most definitely not is a documentary. C+