By Mark Olsen
7:35 PM EDT, August 29, 2013
The musical group known as One Direction inspires feelings, intense feelings. Just in the last week alone, the band has been applauded and booed, honored, put down and defended. All of which seems about right for a group that has ridden to fame as a byproduct of the hard-edged, all-or-nothing interactions of the social-media age. The new documentary "One Direction: This Is Us" is not the raw confessional that title might imply but rather both a primer and new product presentation.
The Brit sensations pride themselves on being, as one member calls them, "a cool boy band" mocking choreographed dance moves and playing a rock-oriented pop over the more typical boy band pop-flavored R&B. They conform to certain personality archetypes, with Harry Styles the pin-up leader, Zayn Malik even referred to by the others as "the mysterious one" and then Niall Horan, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson frustratingly difficult to distinguish for the uninitiated. The boys, ages 19 to 21, project a playful, irreverent image, slightly dangerous but safe to bring home to the folks. To paraphrase the '60s girl group the Shangri-Las, they're good-bad, but they're not evil.
All of which makes documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock a theoretically inspired choice to make the combo-pack concert doc and band history of "This Is Us." Spurlock's documentaries such as "Super Size Me" have a subversive sensibility and showman's panache that should match up with the behind-the-scenes horseplay of the boys' adventures on tour, but ultimately, the film feels anonymous. Interchangeable somewhat with other recent concert docs surveying the likes of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, the film shows that perhaps the technical apparatus of shooting an arena-scaled concert in high-gloss 3-D simply leaves little room for personalization.
The group is both a purposeful, manufactured phenomenon and a somewhat spontaneous occurrence, because the five individual members were all booted from a televised British singing competition only to be assembled by Svengali producer Simon Cowell as a group in 2010. They then lost again, but not without starting a wave of fan adulation that put them on tour before they had released any music. And they have been on a worldwide whirlwind of touring, recording and new releases ever since.
The movie steers clear of dealing with the boys' lives as tabloid stars, with no mention, for example, of Styles' short, intensely documented romance with musician Taylor Swift. The film's most honest moments come from time spent with the boys' parents, as Malik buys his mother a house and Styles' mother and stepfather marvel at being flown around the world by their son. On the flipside, other parents speak to feeling that their young sons left one day for an audition and never came back, meaningful moments in their lives together lost in the interim. But the emotional reality of contemporary fame is simply not what "This Is Us" is about, and so such moments are relative B-sides to the film's breezy camaraderie and flashy concert numbers.
The group's latest hit single declares itself the "Best Song Ever," and that sort of odd predetermination seems to percolate throughout One Direction's story. The boys don't dance, they aren't particularly interested in their singing, and they seem only nominally invested in their music. So what do they do? Can youthful cuteness be a skill and vocation? "One Direction: This Is Us" leaves the larger questions it points toward teasingly unexplored, making the film little more than a harmless keepsake.
'One Direction: This Is Us'
MPAA rating: PG for mild language
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In general release
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