Despite the protests of director Morgan Spurlock, maker of award-winning and critically acclaimed documentaries like “Super Size Me” and “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” his newest feature “One Direction: This Is Us” is a movie designed only to make money. And if you know anything about One Direction, the most popular boy band in the world right now, that shouldn’t be a surprise.
One Direction consists of five UK teens: Niall Horan, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson. Some of them have more tattoos than others, none come from particularly wealthy backgrounds and all of them are extremely attractive (even by boy-band standards).
All five were 2010 contestants on the British reality TV show “The X Factor.” One by one, they each performed in front of a group of judges — including “American Idol” judge and music industry executive Simon Cowell — and were turned away, each one of them sobbing backstage with loved ones as the show went on.
Spurlock recalls this in great detail. It’s meant to be a tearjerker/drama kind of moment, analogous to the boxer who is knocked flat on his back before he knocks out the other guy with one punch. In the theater, at what appeared to be a “mother-daughter” theme screening, most of the dozens of tween girls were sobbing during this part.
Immediately after the last of the boys is sent off, “it” happens. All five future bandmates are pulled back out onstage, the five of them looking wide-eyed and earnest (a word to describe them that appears as readily in print as “Miley” and “twerk”) at the audience. Cowell tells them they’ve been picked to record together as a boy band, so long as they all consent to it. They do.
Now, let’s get something straight — Morgan Spurlock is a serious filmmaker. “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” (2011), a meta-exploration of product placement in the film industry, stands out as an exceptionally wry and striking critique of commoditizing movies.
“One Direction: This is Us,” ironically enough, is one massive commercial. Tracking a group of white male teenagers handpicked by a music industry executive as they ride the charts all the way to the top, Spurlock does his best to really sell you on One Direction.
Moving on from “The X Factor,” the film proceeds at a faster pace. Up until “One Direction: This is Us,” I had remained skeptical of 3-D glasses for movies that weren’t directed by Michael Bay or James Cameron. Tom Krueger, the movie’s director of photography, captures live concert angles expertly, and he exudes complete formal control over every stadium or coliseum performance captured on screen.
Because these concerts, with thousands of people in attendance, are by design detached from experiencing the music, the 3-D format successfully closes the distance that your average preteen would experience with $200 nosebleed seats.
But when the movie leaves the packed audience behind, it falters. Spurlock puts considerable energy into developing the stories behind the members of the band: Harry worked in a bakery, Zayn just bought his family a house, they all love playing soccer without their shirts. It was especially important for the audience to see the band’s biggest boy-toy (the recurring tabloid feature Harry Styles) drop his pants at least three times in performance. I counted.
But the sheer ridiculousness of the premise outweighs any serious consideration of the boys. Are we really expected to buy into the story of One Direction when the movie also shows us the nakedly industry-insider way in which they rose to fame?
Spurlock spends a good chunk of the movie hyping their work ethic and their generally good-natured approach to having a million fans follow their every move. The expectation of this isn’t great cinema — it’s a cynical assumption that the boys’ adorable and charming nature, and considerable shirtless screen time, will raise the excitement level of the millions of pubescent girls in theaters across the world. Overzealously promoting the supposedly down-to-earth nature of One Direction sinks what was an otherwise well-made movie about a relatively benign pop culture phenomenon.
When I caught up with Spurlock earlier this summer, he defended his reasoning to make the movie as an opportunity to work with figures like Krueger, as well as exploring the “massive phenomenon” of One Direction.
When I pressed him on how One Direction sexualizes itself to appeal to a younger demographic, he replied that if you “went all the way back to the Beatles, who wanted to ‘Hold Your Hand,’” you’d find similar examples. Ignoring the fact that Paul McCartney never had to strip to his boxers in order to be considered a real artist, Spurlock reiterated his point, adding that One Direction’s efforts at “creating a fantasy for young girls” was nothing new.
And it’s this “fantasy” that both sustains the movie while also lending it its prepackaged vibe; if the best part of the movie is the 3-D fantasy of being onstage with One Direction, then the worst part of the movie is the fantasy of what Spurlock called “the great story” of One Direction.
Ultimately, it’s too tough a sell for Spurlock. Reconciling the vacuousness of the band with the bombast of 3-D technology will obviously make the target demographic swoon but will likely make anyone else want to leave the theater. And fast.