Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Star is Born? JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER

The massive publicity machine behind Justin Bieber: Never Say Never may have people thinking that this is a concert film pitched exclusively at the multitude of young girls who have already become ecstatic fans of the 16-year-old pop star known to the population at large as much for his coiffure as he is for his music. To a certain extent, it’s true that the movie will appeal to that demographic. This is a movie that is bound to please the hoards of fans that will flock to it this weekend. But it’s not exactly the hagiography his most venomous detractors will assume. Oh, it’s flattering all right, but it presents a somewhat honest, if also fairly calculated, look at the making of a pop star in the age of the Internet. If you have any interest in pure youth-centric pop music this could be of interest. It’s a bubblegum dispatch from the front lines of youth culture.

The movie takes great pains to say that Justin Bieber is just a regular kid, and while that’s quite possibly the internal case, the movie shows external differences. He’s surrounded by a support system of stylists, choreographers, vocal coaches, back-up dancers, security guards, technicians, drivers, and celebrities. That’s not too normal. But when he is normal, just, to use the parlance of the film, a small-town kid from Canada, the movie’s actually kind of interesting. We see early footage of a pre-fame Bieber and a mid-tour sojourn that finds him back at home. His grandparents seem delightful, grounding forces. His friends from before his fame seem like normal kids. No matter how carefully collected the footage, it’s clear that this kid comes from a normal background that, at least to some extent, stuck with him.

The movie makes a gloss of his personal background. It has no intention of elaborating on why his young mother and father broke up when he was only ten months old. And that’s okay with me. This is not meant to be an in-depth psychological profile of a young star’s family life. This is a professional chronicle, at least when it is at its most interesting. I most enjoyed the movie’s glimpse into his meteoric rise. Home videos show his early musical aptitude, drumming, singing, and guitar playing from such a young age that the instruments dwarfed him. They also show his eventual steps into public performance through a competition in a local talent show and singing on street corners. But once he hits YouTube and gets discovered by an up-and-coming producer, his career takes off.

It may be hard to remember, living as we are in an age of Bieber omnipresence, but he released his first single less than two years ago. It’s encouraging to see a young performer break through the stranglehold of Disney’s tween celebrity machine to become a star on his own terms, even if those terms just happen to be set by a different set of corporate overlords. A social-network fueled storm of tween buzz kicked it off. The movie treads a fine line between praising his fans and pointing out just how crazy many of them are, showing both glowing, tearful fans and crazed mobs of stage-jumpers and clothes-clawers. The size of the crowds that greet him grow until, finally, he sells out Madison Square Garden in twenty-two minutes. There’s some kind of phenomenon happening here, even if sometimes I felt like these squealing girls who are interviewed were speaking some unknown foreign language.

By now, I feel like we’re on the precipice of the next stage of his career. Will he become a true star, breaking out of the child-star box in which so many people see him? Will he fade into obscurity? Of course it’s too early to tell, but history will naturally make this documentary a smidge more interesting, adding layers of subtext once we know where his story goes from here. For now, the movie’s fairly enjoyable in a way that’s slightly more than a promotional behind-the-scenes peek. Bieber’s music is smooth, listenable pop. The songs often have a nice groove and always feature good production value. His song “Baby,” especially, has some undeniably sturdy pop-music mechanics driving it forward. It’s quite an earworm.

I went in to the theater neither a fan nor a hater of Justin Bieber, but I definitely left interested in seeing where he’ll go next. The guy’s got talent. Director Jon Chu, of the delightful Step Up 3D, shoots lively concert footage in sometimes striking 3D. Otherwise, the footage is a mishmash of home videos, YouTube videos, and TV clips, typical for the documentary genre but not particularly well suited for the 3D format. (Not that that will matter to the target audience). Under Chu's direction, the movie is fluffy and lumpy, but it's also a slick, professional product with a nice sense of humor that sporadically pokes through.

By it’s very nature it can’t get as close to the truth as such legendary rock docs as the Maysles brothers’ Rolling Stones film Gimme Shelter or D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan feature Don’t Look Back. But nor are the stakes as high. As a surface treatment of a true-life Horatio Alger tale, Never Say Never achieves its goals. Bieber’s image is thoroughly varnished. What it means to future pop culture scholars will depend on whether or not Bieber can push past his early success and massive cult to achieve not just popularity, but greatness as well. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” his mom asks him at one point in footage from his toddler years. He grins and stares into the camera, but Chu cuts away before we hear the answer.

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