News Column

'One Direction: This Is Us' review: Aimless spin

August 30, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 30--One Direction: This Is Us

Documentary. Starring Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik and Louis Tomlinson. Directed by Morgan Spurlock. (PG. 92 minutes.)

There is nothing one critic can say that will sway the concrete will of a One Direction fan. You might as well head to the Vatican and try to talk the pope out of being Catholic.

You can see it on the faces of the devotees in the documentary "One Direction: This Is Us." The bond between boy band and tween girl transcends any disapproving parents' claims that the music is mediocre much less the words of one movie reviewer. Someday, as adults, these fans may laugh, and tell their own children it was all a silly crush. They will still flock to the "One Direction" 25th anniversary tour in 2035, squinting a little to make Harry's crow's feet and Niall's paunch disappear.

But know this to be true: "One Direction: This Is Us" is not a good film, even grading on the curve of the self-produced infomercials disguised as musical biopics that we've seen in recent years. The Katy Perry movie was this genre's "North by Northwest." "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" offered insights and some drama along with its marketing pitch. The 3-D 1D movie is aimless, seemingly deceptive and spreads a poor message: that it's OK to act extremely immature, as long as you have millions of blind followers who think it's cute.

There is, no doubt, a good story behind One Direction. As band members enter their 20s, do they worry about satisfying their aging fan base? Do they want more creative input into their music? Is there a "Hunger Games" thing going on within the band, knowing that only one member, if lucky, will make the Timberlake-esque turn to sustained adult stardom?

We get almost none of that here. Instead, the documentary sticks to a simple message. (1) These boys are incredibly talented and (2) they're really just like you and me!

Never mind that almost every action in the movie contradicts the twin talking points. Pound the message hard enough, and maybe no one will notice that only one of these boys has a notable voice, and their idea of a bold creative step is "Let's all wear orange tonight!"

"One Direction: This Is Us" spends a few minutes covering the band's genesis as castoffs from TV's "The X Factor"; producer Simon Cowell himself offers a band history that seems more serendipitous and far less calculated than the likely reality.

Then we're on the road, following the band as they're alternately wide-eyed and rascally, and rarely more revealing than a Q&A in Tiger Beat. Morgan Spurlock directs, but other than a few self-conscious touches -- a neuroscientist is brought in to explain the draw of One Direction -- his documentary style appears to be neutered by the demands of the marketing machine. Each of the band members takes his shirt off at least once, as if a checklist were involved.

(OK, I kept count. You're welcome, girls. Harry Styles leads with five shirtless appearances plus an onstage pantsing. Liam is close behind with four.)

The strategy is to hype the boys with narration, while their own words remain humble. Twice in the first 10 minutes, we hear outside forces compare the band to the Beatles. But with their juvenile antics and exaggerated cluelessness, the Monkees are a more apt (and still charitable) comparison. They zoom around on golf carts recklessly, can't figure out how to pitch a tent, and one member tries to pour his miso soup on a bowl of rice.

Our neuroscientist might say this makes them seem more vulnerable and accessible to their young female fans. Parents will think they just lack sense. Based on the documentary, you could lock the band in a house with a full pantry and a furnace that operates with a push-button thermostat, and they would still perish by starvation or exposure.

Hopefully that will never be the case. If one sincere thought comes through in the One Direction movie, it's the idea that fame can be fleeting. Sing every pop song as if it could be your last.

SFGate.com

Peter Hartlaub talks about his decade of reviewing boy bands and other tween films and concerts on his SFGate.com blog, the Big Event, blog.sfgate.com/thebigevent.

Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: phartlaub@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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