5 Reasons One Direction: This Is Us Won Me Over

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The 5 easiest reasons I could come up with for how in god’s name One Direction: This Is Us turned me from a skeptic into a belieber believer would be: Harry, Niall, Louis, Liam, and Zayn. That would be both far too easy and obvious, and also too simplistic—I do want to be clear that I absolutely could do that because these guys are genuinely adorbs. I didn’t want to like them as much as I did, and I didn’t want to admit that I liked them as much as I did, and yet here I am.

Tempting as it might be to attribute this likeability entirely to the band (a term which everyone calls them, despite boy bands being as much “band” as “Cheez Whiz” is cheese), major credit is due to the efforts of directioner director and honorary sixth One Direction member, Morgan Spurlock. I’ve written a couple of times in the past couple of weeks about the subversive streak Spurlock’s films have shown, from Super Size Me to The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and whether this movie would try to subtly work in some biting commentary that would go undetected by evil supervillain and executive producer Simon Cowell.

These were tempered expectations, and rightfully so. Given that Spurlock had looked to land the directorial spot on the Bieber and Katy Perry movies, it would seem this is a realm of human culture that he’s genuinely interested in, and thus won’t simply treat it with snarky antagonism, satisfying as that approach may be to cynics like myself.

Instead, he was able to make a pop music documentary that is certain to please the group’s countless fans around the world, but also provide enough interesting material and entertainment value to potentially win over the more hard-hearted watchers.

Here are 5 reasons you just may find One Direction: This Is Us surprisingly enjoyable.

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1) It’s genuinely funny, for real

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I say this with some hesitation, but I found the general tone of the movie to be fun and entertaining instead of self-serious and self-important. The memory of the Justin Bieber and Katy Perry films of years past, which I saw for RESEARCH PURPOSES, is of vague dissatisfaction. Here’s where I think those films fail where this one succeeds. Both those movies focus on the way these performers brighten up the lives of their fans. They both talk about the inspiration people draw from the two stars, highlighting their humble beginnings and chronicling their rise to fame, and then showing them up on stage, telling fans to follow their dreams, essentially saying, “You, too, could be up here!” This Is Us tells the story from the group’s perspective, and so the message isn’t “You could be us!” but rather “We wouldn’t be here without you!” That’s a simple, yet stark distinction.

Everything about the movie springs forth from that sensibility, then. Instead of seeing how hard these guys work, and their lives do seem to consist mostly of a kind of work where they are traveling from arena to recording studio to arena to photo shoot, we mostly see them dicking around—sorry, I mean “mucking about.” They’re kids, really, after all. And five young guys being given virtually anything they’d like are going to find ways to amuse themselves, and since they’re a group, amuse each other. So there’s a decent amount of footage of them making the most of what little downtime they’re granted by the folks who run the show, and watching the ensuing tomfoolery among the college freshman-age boys, you can’t help but smile and shake your head. They’re just doing what they do, pretending that they’re cool!

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2) It offers some fascinating glimpses at teen fandom

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The point that gets made over and over in One Direction: This Is Us is that without the fans being the way they are, none of the fame and none of the experiences by the band’s members would be remotely possible. It’s emphasized in the humble beginnings alluded to in the film’s introduction and the singers’ eventual brief returns to their homes toward the conclusion. Band member Louis characterizes the relationship between the band and its fans as a symbiotic one of sorts, which I haven’t heard a popstar express in terms quite so simple. And even though it’s an obvious point, it highlights the arbitrary nature of cultish fame, and provides the justification and motivation for why someone in a group like this would continue.

The power exercised by the band members over their hoards of fans is revealing. To the boys, it’s mostly a source of amusement. They raise their arms, the crowd screams; they lower them, the crowd goes quiet. They send out a single tweet and an entire arena’s worth of people show up to their show dressed in orange. The source of this power? One girl summarizes One Direction’s appeal perfectly. To paraphrase: they sing words to girls that no boys will ever say to them. This could be taken a couple of ways. One is that boys are socialized to be more hesitant to express strong feelings, and are necessarily cold or act out in inappropriate ways toward girls. The other is that the group’s fans are predominantly girls with deep insecurities and soothe themselves with the lyrics of these mythical superboy figures who they believe are telling them they’re beautiful, special, kind, smart and important. It’s a powerful little moment that you get the sense Spurlock wishes he could dwell on a bit more, but it’s a sentiment quickly drowned out by thousands of other screaming devotees.

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3) The portrayal of the band members is charming/possibly a tad damning?

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The bulk of the movie, of the moments we’re allowed to witness, whether they’re truly genuine or not, consists of the guys acting like “normal guys.” The overwhelming message of the movie is that they’re normal, that they haven’t fallen prey (and there’s a deep, underlying “yet” implied here) to that superstar mentality where the world revolves around them and their tunnel vision becomes so narrow that they’re barely a person anymore. This is the image we’re meant to take away from the film.

Whether this is because it’s actually the truth as Morgan Spurlock saw it, or it’s the calculated effort of Simon Cowell (who’s maybe even a stand-in for whatever invisible forces are pulling the strings in a particular Direction), is impossible for us to determine concretely. The fact is that what we see of them is that they’re fairly down to earth guys who are genuinely baffled by their stardom but are trying to have as much fun and learn as much as they can while they’re able (more on the question of temporality on the next page). The fact is, it’s pretty hard not to like the five of them.

Where it becomes maybe even more revealing than they intended, if they intended anything specifically at all, is when we’re meant to see them at work. We have to assume that they’re overworked the way most popstars who tour the world seem to be. We get hints that they’re exhausted from the constant travel, the sprint from the arena back door to the bus, the wakeup call to record the hook for the essential summer track prescribed for them, but nothing is so explicit. The strong implication is that they are worked rather hard.

The keyword there, of course, is “worked.” They’re not shown writing, hardly shown seriously rehearsing (they don’t seem to do any choreographed routines so there’s probably less to rehearse than someone like Bieber), and there’s always a grownup directing them where to go and what to do. We’re told they have so much control over their work, and yet little of this actually makes it into the film. You would think that, like Katy Perry’s people did in her movie, they’d at least try to demonstrate some of the performers’ creative control. All we see is the gang doing a silly version of one of their songs, one of them saying “We should do it this way on stage tonight!” and then no sign of that ever happening. Oddly enough though, this doesn’t make them less likeable, but it does make you wonder—and perhaps this is intentional—who’s really pulling the strings.

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4) It addresses some questions that normally wouldn’t be touched upon

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The question hanging over One Direction’s heads, over the heads of any boy band or popstar or hitmaker or flavor of the moment, is how long can this go on? The unique thing about this group is that of the ones who speak on the subject, they don’t seem to mind the thought of disappearing from the public eye. The prospect that this fame and money could only be temporary is actually cited as a benefit for Liam, for instance, who fantasizes about meeting a girl who doesn’t already know his name and know the character he plays on TV, and having a family and moving back home. It’s almost enough to make a movie lover hope that they do go away in a few years, leave music altogether, and we can check back in with them every 7 years to see how they’re doing, like a Michael Apted series. Because what’s clear from both the history of pop culture and the fanaticism demonstrated in the movie is that it’s impossible to sustain this level of demand and hysteria for very long. It’s just exhausting.

Either Spurlock himself deserves props for pressing the band members on this question, or else it’s a testament to the guys and the people around them for making this a topic of which they’re acutely aware. There are other topics that are touched on briefly but not explored too deeply, which is unfortunate but understandable due to time and interest constraints. The toll the insane story of One Direction has taken on the families of the band members is fascinating, but may be best suited for another movie. There’s a brief revelation where they point out that since their days on The X Factor, the boys have essentially returned to their homes for literally a few days. That’s over the course of 3 years, at least the way the movie presents it. Ultimately, the primary question asked is why the hysteria over these five ordinary guys? The explicit answer given amounts to “I don’t know. People just like them.” But the implied explanation over the course of the movie is that there were indications of certain levels of likeability, and Cowell and company capitalized on that and continue and will continue to do so for as long as possible, because that’s the way the system works. Do your one thing well, and then it’s on to the next thing. At least Liam’s okay with this.

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5) It inhabits the personality of the band

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These days I tend to think of a movie as a kind of person. Every film has its own tone, and its own personality. This gets attributed to a director despite being a huge collaborative effort, but that’s because the movies that really work feel like they’re operating in a single direction, where everyone is on the same page, as though they’re acting like one person. It’s also why I find it more useful that, in the same way people are complicated and simply casting them as “good” or “bad” misses potential richness and layers therein, movies go beyond good and bad if we think of them as organic, living things, documents that reveal something to us no matter what we think of their evaluative quality.

The personality of this movie feels very much like the way kids in their late teens and early 20s would want to be depicted: having fun, being carefree, enduring minor dramas and living it up with their friends. Kind of like a more age-appropriate Entourage. There’s a sort of innocent rebelliousness to it, a kind of pacified punk rock that they undoubtedly think makes them look badass but makes everyone else think “aw, aren’t you cute.” Most of all, it’s just an enjoyable and entertaining ninety minutes from moment to moment, which is basically the way the band seems to be experiencing their stardom.

What makes One Direction: This Is Us…I wouldn’t quite say “beautiful,” but certainly interesting, engaging and worth a watch is this surprising sense of self-awareness and skill in portraying what the group is about in as simple and cinematically pleasing a way possible. It’s a low bar to clear, but of the recent trend of popstar concert documentary film spanning back three or four years, this just might be the best one ever.

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