For the rabid One Direction fans – or “Directioners,” as they prefer to be called – the musical-biopic This Is Us serves as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Gone With the Wind, all rolled together in one sugary-sweet pop-music confection. Think I’m exaggerating? Are you going to tell that pre-teen girl in the front row who is sobbing her way through the band’s melodic love letter “Little Things” that this isn’t The Greatest Movie She’s Ever Seen?
I didn’t think so.
The rest of us will recognize This Is Us for what it actually is: An adequately crafted and frequently enjoyable skip through the white-hot spotlight currently shining on overnight sensations One Direction. By mixing on-stage concert footage with what passes for anarchistic back-stage banter these days, This Is Us peddles One Direction as a musical act that exists somewhere between the organic pop virtuosity of The Beatles and the catchy, manufactured boy bands of the ‘90s. And as with similar pop-umentaries, it won’t sway many opinions to one side or the other. Those who cherish 1D will have their faith reaffirmed. Those who loathe them won’t bother.
The documentary starts at the beginning, which – for One Direction members Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson – was the stage of Britain’s televised talent show The X Factor back in 2010. The five guys didn’t make it through the competition as individual singers. But X Factor producer Simon Cowell happily shows up in This Is Us to remind audiences it was his brilliant idea to combine the five handsome, talented, camera-ready rogues into Britain’s next musical sensation.
This Is Us sufficiently documents One Direction’s meteoric rise, giving ticket buyers exactly what they paid for. Surprisingly, 1D is a tame live act, eschewing the choreographed theatrics of previous male pop acts to avoid the dirty moniker “boy band.” Still, the boys come off as worthy bearers of that ever-fickle pop-idol torch. They acknowledge the short shelf-life of a musical act – particularly one born on a television show – and contemplate what life in a post-Direction world might be like. We hardly expect such introspection from “lads” who have been handed the keys to pop culture’s kingdom. But on multiple occasions, the members of 1D suggest they still have their feet on the ground, even as stardom begs to inflate their egos into the clouds.
Not that This Is Us is all philosophical meanderings on the state of celebrity. Far from it. One Direction came to rock … er, to make you bounce in your seat to carefully calculated pop songs like Up All Night (which kicks off the movie) to Best Song Ever, the new track they recorded for the movie. Buy a ticket to This Is It, and you’ll get the best seats possible to 1D’s sold-out show at London’s O2 Arena, as well as select stops along the “Take Me Home” tour.
The knock on Us is that it doesn’t try to do enough – or anything – to appeal to anyone outside of 1D’s demographic. Noted UK music journalists dub the band’s career ascent as “unprecedented,” making giddy comparisons to Beatlemania without including a condescending smirk. Yet Us comes off as … not pedestrian, but too familiar. You’d hardly know Oscar-nominated documentarian Morgan Spurlock (Super-Size Me) was behind the lens if his name wasn’t in the credits. Instead of probing an interesting social issue, as he’s often done in the past, Spurlock methodically captures a red-hot band in a given moment. But he also follows ever-so-closely the exact same documentary blueprint employed by Katy Perry (for Part of Me) and Justin Bieber (Never Say Never) … and one could argue that a band this hot deserved a little more.