ONE DIRECTION: THIS IS US is a great spool of carefully spun cotton candy designed to delight its target audience. And it will. The millions upon millions of tweens who are obsessed with the eponymous boy band created by Simon Cowell (Britainís Got Talent, American Idol) will scream and swoon in equal measure to the film that executive producer Mr. Cowell has custom-ordered from award-winning documentarian, Morgan Spurlock (SUPER SIZE ME).
The purpose is straightforward, present the boy band at its most appealing, each of the members evincing his personality in a carefully proscribed fashion that will do nothing to alarm the fans, or their parents. Working within this framework, Spurlock finds much that will interest, though not the same degree as the fans, about these kids who have gone from humble obscurity to superstardom in a few short years. We meet them. We meet their families. We meet their tattoos. We see that they are good kids who love their families and their families love them. They are fun-loving. They work hard. If they drink, smoke, swear, or womanize, the camera is not there when it happens. Believing that normal boys of this age (late teens, early twenties) are this squeaky clean is a matter of choice. I choose to believe that whatever the truth of the matter is, Simon Cowell has chosen to present his creation as the immaculate conception, and that no one in his or her right mind would choose to cross Simon Cowell.
Spurlock, though, finds much to amuse himself and us within these strictures. At one point he brings in a neuroscientist, model of the human brain in hand, to explain exactly what it is that these tweens are experiencing on a bio-chemical level. They are not, he explains, insane. Theyíre just excited. And itís the excited reaction that fascinates Spurlock. Interspersed with the concert footage where the boys sing their sweet ballads amid laser shows and levitating platforms (effects that sort of justify the 3D), and the ďcandidĒ moments as they talk about their lives, hopes, and dreams, Spurlock demonstrates the awesome power of One Direction. During one interview, a member of the band crosses the large, silent hotel room in which it is taking place, throws open a window that overlooks the fans mobbing beneath it, and sticks his head out. The ensuing roar is heard is all its distinct, awe-inspiring power. Here, amid the teen-magazine schmaltz is a commentary on the power of stardom, fandom, and media.
The media aspect also fascinates Spurlock. The band, as we learn, competed individually on one of Cowellís British television talent shows, and came to naught. Seeing something greater than its individual parts, though, he put them together, sent them to boy-band boot camp, and had them compete again. They caused a sensation on social media, building the frenzy that would take off before they even released a song, much less an album. There is social commentary there, but respectful. As are the portraits of each boy.
They each get their moments individually, with each other, with family, and with pranks on each other and on fans, as they travel the world and as they stick close to home. This could easily have been nothing more than fluff of the teen mag variety, and there is much of that to be sure, but Spurlock occasionally comes up with something meaty. Niall Horanís father, for example, tearing up just a little when he talks about how his lack of experience of the larger world has left him with nothing left to teach his son.
Harry Styles, the most popular member of the group, is seen larking about with his former co-workers in his hometown village bakery, being brash and adorable, and the middle-aged ladies lapping it up, and it is text book fluff. But Spurlock, to his credit, also catches a moment earlier in the film as the boys are being outfitted for their upcoming tour and Harry, larking about as usual, is not cooperating as fully as he could. The stylistís face, as she tries to work with him speaks volumes in its fleeting expression of being, not a little, but SO over it.
Make no mistake, ONE DIRECTION: THIS IS US is a concoction aimed to please the tweens who idolize the boys in the band. For the rest of us, itís harmless promotion for a phenomenon of epic, but strict demographic, proportions. It would be interesting to see them all again in five or ten years, and with Spurlock behind the camera, pondering the nature of this kind of fame, and its long-term effects on both on the idolized and the idolizers.