One Direction: Please Help Us

Alex Rose explores the world of pre-fabricated pop with his review of the Morgan Spurlock documentaryOne Direction: This Is Us

One Direction

As much as I hate to admit it, I have to cop to the fact that One Direction doesn’t rank anywhere near the worst of history’s pre-fabricated pop bands. They might not have the impishly anarchic spirit of the Monkees or the non-stop hits of the Backstreet Boys, but at least their aggressively bland take on power-pop (in an alternative universe, One Direction would be a misbegotten ‘70s Boston-area band of the skinny-tie variety with one great EP) is better than the moped-riding, Linda-Blair-hanging antics of S Club 7. They’re the squeaky-clean, hairless moppets the world needs right now, and Morgan Spurlock’s (Super Size Me) One Direction: This Is Us is yet another painstaking step taken by their overlords to establish them as aseptic, asexual demi-gods who sleep in buses 10 months out of the year because they want nothing more than to wave at you and only you, little girl.

I knew I was in trouble when the theatre staff wheeled out cardboard cutouts of the five chimney sweeps in skinny jeans; I thought there were only four whippersnappers in 1D, and my proclaiming this to my reluctant +1 got me death stares from the predominantly female, predominantly teenage and predominantly hysterical crowd. Go away, old man; this is not the place for you. How right they were; despite the pedigree behind the camera, One Direction: This Is Us is more interested in showing the boys with their shirts off and reciting the same garbage platitudes about feeling blessed and missing their parents that we’ve been hearing from young boys with dumb hair for almost 50 years than actually observing the crushing boredom and impending megalomania that periodically seeps in through the cracks.

Built around a performance at London’s O2 arena, the film follows our five intrepid leprechauns on a 10-month tour of the world where they’re routinely mobbed by tearful young girls, holed up in luxurious hotel rooms, prancing about in their underwear and pushing each other around in wheeled garbage bins and generally making with the hijinx and tomfoolery. (They are also shown sleeping a lot; based on the cooing of the audience, teenage girls think sleeping is the cutest thing ever.) As far as perfectly styled pop stars go, they’re actually a fairly charismatic bunch (save maybe for Zayn Malik, the swarthy, sombre one, who spends most of the movie hugging his knees and soulfully staring out of the window) and one imagines that if their handlers weren’t so concerned in keeping them perfect ideals for the bobby-soxer set, they might be capable of the kind of silly dry humour that the Beatles put forth in their features (a perplexing credits sequence has them made up as old ladies and breakdancing in a kind of British variation of JFL Gags). Instead, they seem to be reciting a script that’ll make them endearing to grandmothers and toddlers alike, nigh indistinguishable from one another.

The performances themselves are fairly dynamic thanks to Spurlock’s clever use of 3D to fully explore the elaborately constructed sets; unfortunately, the songs are an interminable mish-mash of power chords and oh-oh harmonizing that bleed into each other (they do a cover of Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag”, for chrissakes); it’s unlikely that even the most dynamic of camera swoops will be enough to sell the unsold. There are moments that peek at a darkness that’s absent from the smiling faces on lunchboxes and overpriced t-shirts; for all of their hard work up there, none of the boys particularly seem like they enjoy doing what they do, half-heartedly waving at girls who lose their shit in glorious 3D (say what you will, my generation of boy bands never captured their fans’ teenage gawkiness and pulsating hormones in crystal-clear HD). All of this is fleeting and wholly unintentional; the majority of the film seems to have been carefully pored over by the band’s PR stooges to remove anything potentially offending and/or vaguely human (although one of them does fart at one point, so, you know, gross, I guess).

Anyone would tell you that expecting a fly-on-the-wall, warts-and-all exposé of the biggest teen band in the world was a fool’s errand. Yet Spurlock has made something even sadder, a glossy and carefully pruned celebration of the so-called best time in these five kids’ lives that actually depicts it as a highly regimented quasi-prison where they spend hours every day bored out of their skulls and their reward is the privilege of being groped and yelled at for two hours. He may not have set out to make Cocksucker Blues, but apparently Spurlock has proven that no matter how much you try to sandblast away the sadness of über-fame, it’ll poke its head through. ■

One Direction: This Is Us opens tomorrow

Alex Rose explores the worst of cinema on his podcast and blog, Why Does it Exist? @whydoesitblog on Twitter

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