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Entries in One Direction: This Is Us [2013] (1)


One Direction: This Is Us (2013)

Drone Strike

On the surface, One Direction: This Is Us is another in a long line of pop-umentaries that double as a concert film. From Miley Cyrus to Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, it seems every new-millennium tween music sensation has had their brief careers recorded, packaged, and released in 3D at a rate that just outpaces their fans' appetite for new flavors of bubblegum. To paraphrase the movie Dave, these are commercials for products people have already bought, and are therefore utterly useless to those of us immune to the questionable vocal stylings of cute, shaggy-haired British boys.

But leave it to the collective evil genius of entertainment executives to mine new revenue from unlikely places. This Is Us roped me in with two words: Morgan Spurlock. The Oscar-nominated docudramatist is known for tackling meaty issues, and I wondered if he'd agreed to helm this ostensible puff-piece as a back door into chronicling the evolution of teenage pop culture in a social media age.

No such luck. The crusader who saved America from dangerous fast-food portions; who took us around the world in search of Osama Bin Laden; and who taught us that marketing is really prolific in our society, has finally, officially, and undoubtedly sold out to Tiger Beat.

My assessment of Spurlock's filmography is facetious, of course: while his subject matter is the stuff of hard-hitting investigative journalism, his delivery often boils down to colorfully packaged empty calories aimed at people who, oddly, derive their mental sustenance from the movies. It helps that he's a hell of a pitch-man, humping the same "Aw Shucks Midwestern Guy with a Camera and a Crusade" persona that made Michael Moore a millionaire. In other words, Spurlock was the perfect choice (indeed, the only choice) to direct this disposable boy-band commercial.

If your familiarity with One Direction is limited to their radio singles and clearance-bound action figures, allow me to bring you up to speed. In 2010, five teenagers were eliminated from the UK version of a televised talent search called The X-Factor. Producer Simon Cowell saw greatness in singers Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, and Louis Tomlinson--at the very least, he saw dollar signs. Before the boys were sent home, Cowell singled them out from the pool of rejected contestants and asked if they'd be interested in forming a band.

The freshly minted 1D (as the kids call them) took The X-Factor by storm--only to get axed in a later round. By this point, they'd gained such a following that Cowell put them on tour, even absent a track record or promotable album. Fast-forward three years, and they're selling out Madison Square Garden with two CDs worth of material (plus a cover of Wheatus' "Teenage Dirtbag" that made me want to rush right out and download the original).

That's the beginning and end of This Is Us's narrative thrust. The rest of the film is comprised of concert footage; standard-issue behind-the-scenes pranks and confessionals; and the requisite Trip(s) Back Home, where we meet the guys' families and learn that they're just regular people from humble beginnings. There's nothing here that couldn't have been gleaned from a press release, but the movie overstays its welcome anyway at a gruelling ninety minutes.

Understand that I'm not beating up on the band. It's obvious from the non-produced concert footage that each of them can sing. They also come across as very likable, extremely grateful young men who can't believe their own success. Styles, in particular, has the manic charisma of a young Mick Jagger, and I wouldn't be surprised if he winds up the Justin Timberlake of the group. I only liked one of the songs in the film, but that boils down to taste; almost every boy band has at least one chart-topping, genuinely catchy single, with the rest of their catalogue serving as a tease to download an entire album of highly skippable supporting tracks.*

No, I reserve my ire solely for Spurlock, who adds nothing but his name to the production. This Is Us has nothing to say about One Direction, boy bands in general, their fans, or the invisible, cash-fueled Ouroboros that creates new iterations of same every few years. At least the Justin Bieber movie cut a little deeper, painting a portrait of a recognizable human being. Manipulated or not, I walked away from that picture with an appreciation of how the process scopes out new talent, blow-dries it to perfection, and primes the world stage for its latest conquering hero.

This Is Us plays almost as a sequel. By ignoring those of us who still care about story in our documentaries (even the fake ones), and instead plunging full-steam ahead into Ad Land, Spurlock alienates anyone who might have bought a ticket based on his name and not the band's (yes, we do exist). As I wrote in my review of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, we'll likely have to wait decades for the really interesting, substantive stories about these pop idols. In One Direction's case, even a hint of gray skies would have given us reason to check back later--but it's all sunshine and happiness in the land of make-believe.

How did five budding solo artists really feel about being molded into a boy band? Was everyone so desperate for fame and money that they just signed onto Cowell's plan without question? Were there any fights or ego problems along the way, or did everyone really get along famously? Any creative qualms about performing feather-light love songs written by professional hacks, rather than sharing their own unique thoughts with the world? Do these boys have unique thoughts? Are we to believe that One Direction is comprised of five normal boys who grew up in loving, supportive households with zero drama--households that remained largely unaffected by their (presumably) eldest kids disappearing for years at a time?**

I ask these questions not because I went into the film looking for controversy. I'm simply an artist who A) also happened to be twenty years old once, and B) understands that families are only drama-free support circles in the movies (and bad movies, at that). If this really is an accurate portrait of One Direction, then perhaps my ill will towards Morgan Spurlock is misplaced. It's entirely possible he's been mind-wiped by a new race of buff, British enslavement drones, whose all-powerful vanilla influence he'll have to escape in order to save his flagging career.

Now, that's a movie I'd like to see.

*In fairness to the band, This Is Us was the first and only time I really gave their music a shot. But the songs are, from my recollection, totally indistinguishable. At least two of them feature the non-phrase "Na Na Na"--but only one is actually called "Na Na Na". The rest of the soundtrack is comprised of generic odes to the same "Girl"s, "Baby"s, and "You"s who've been tempting randy, adolescent crooners since the New Kids on the Block first hung tough.

**We get a hint of the answer to this last question late in the movie, when Liam's dad talks about how the mothers of boy band sensations get all the sympathy for missing their sons--while the fathers are equally as upset. This could have been a beautiful and interesting avenue to explore, but because the commercial must never be interrupted by actual programming, we're left forever hanging.