I had hoped the Justin Bieber documentary Never Say Never would be a brutal, no-holds-barred insight into the depraved life of a teen pop sensation, in which his darkest secrets were unearthed, and his most perverted fetishes satisfied by his legions of adoring fans. But this concert film is fine too, I guess. Never Say Never is an always entertaining, if not always illuminating, look at how a pre-tween Canuck became one of the most famous people on the planet. Intercut with scenes from his electrifying live performances – culminating at a sold-out gig at the Madison Square Garden – are interviews with the people behind the “brand” of Bieber (or should that be “church”?). We are introduced to the alchemists who looked at a talented little kid, saw dollar signs, and turned him into pure gold. Somehow, director Jon Chu is able to make their success not seem exploitative.
The film is actually a nice counterpoint to the Casey Affleck/Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary I’m Still Here, which examined what happens to a celebrity when they try to escape the narrow pigeonhole of fame in which they’ve been categorised: the audience rejects them, the system spits them out, and they go crazy on drugs and have existential dilemmas while climbing trees. If I’m Still Here is Act 3 of “the Hollywood dream”, then Never Say Never is Act 1. That’s not to say that Bieber will go the way of the fictional-Phoenix in twenty years’ time (besides, I don’t think he’ll ever be able to grow a beard as impressive as Joaquin’s). Rather, it’s an undeniably intoxicating look at the early stages of fame, from the eyes of a kid too young to understand that there is a big price that will have to be paid at some later date. Until then: fun!
The “documentary” aspects of the film occasionally feel like special features on a concert DVD. Although the interviews with Team Bieber are fascinating, I don’t know why Chu felt he had to invent conflict elsewhere. An inordinate amount of time is spent on Justin’s sore throat, and we’re expected to consider this a tragedy akin to the numerous horrible events that befall Javier Bardem in Biutiful. The topic of Bieber himself is plenty interesting enough, and I’d rather we get into the nitty gritty of his transition into a megastar, rather than extended shots of him playing basketball with his hometown friends, reiterating that “he hasn’t changed man”. He absolutely has, or at least, his life has. Irrevocably. I find that really intriguing. It’s incredible that there is a whole team of people (manager, vocal coach, bodyguard, producer, Usher) who have worked together to turn him into a money-printing factory. Haters gonna hate, but Justin Bieber is a phenomenon, and totally deserves a documentary in his honour.
Bieber is one of the first pop stars/celebrities to have their entire life fastidiously documented (as if he were a member of the Friedman family). As the story goes, he began posting videos of himself singing on YouTube, the videos went viral, were spotted by a manager in Atlanta, and the rest is history. In the film, we are treated to so much footage of pre-fame Bieber; it’s kind of astounding. If as much video of a pre-fame Bob Dylan had been located in a vault somewhere, we would see a trilogy of three-hour-docos heading to cinemas (although it probably wouldn’t be in 3-D, and probably wouldn’t feature any previously-unreleased collaborations with Jaden Smith). Bieber himself is only interviewed once in the film however (providing an inane answer to a question about Taylor Swift). We never hear him really discuss what his life used to be like or how it feels to deal with all this newfound fame. We don’t need to. He is but one cog in the Justin Bieber machine – a supremely talented cog, but a mostly powerless one. We instead get a 360 perspective on him through all of those video clips, and they in themselves – particularly how they were voraciously obsessed over by teenage girls all over the world – are mesmerising. I don’t even think director Chu realises what a gold mine this footage is. He thinks his movie is inspirational, rather than interesting. Never Say Never may be pretty good by accident, but it’s still pretty good.
Speaking of Bieber fans … Wow. This is the first screening I’ve ever attended in which audience members regularly broke into applause, and even occasionally jumped to their feet to offer a standing ovation to no one in particular. The screams of the crowd at Madison Square Garden were often indistinguishable from the screams coming from within the cinema. Frankly, the concert sequences are thrilling enough to warrant it all. The impassioned response that Bieber elicits in young women is also well-documented in the film. There are some nice moments with tweenage girls waiting outside of his gig; they love Justin so much they continually break into tears. It’s a modern look at the competitive, often irrational, yet human nature of fandom. And guys, before you make fun of little girls engaging in some harmless Biebermania, consider your emotional response to leaked Comic Con footage from the latest Transformers movie. There is something truly beautiful and genuine about loving something/someone/anything/anyone with so much ferocious enthusiasm. Even if you consider Bieber to be a coldly calculated product, his consumers are getting something priceless out of the deal. In 15 years time, these fans will reflect on their infatuation with this cute little singer, and maybe it’ll remind their stern, dispassionate, older selves how to love again. Or maybe they’ll just buy his Greatest Hits and use it to soundtrack a particularly rockin’ 30th birthday party.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never arrives in Australian cinemas April 7, 2011.