Time to christen a new breed of movie: popaganda.
That’s the genre that has risen up in the past five years to lionize young pop stars at the height of their fame. (And, yes, cynically: These films also are designed to cash in on fans’ thirst for anything and everything related to the latest group to capture hearts.) From Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers to Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, the conceit of taking fans “behind the scenes” to give them a flavor of the hectic life of global pop stars has become a rite of passage for every young performer in the music business.
The latest sleek salvo of pop star mythmaking is director Morgan Spurlock’s “One Direction: This Is Us.”
Presented like nearly every other popagandistic piece of product in the past few years, it arrives in 3-D, so the screaming young women can try to grasp the objects of their desire, only to have them slip through their fingers.
The documentary tracks the five young members of One Direction – Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson – as the group begins its whirlwind journey around the globe on its 2012 tour, promoting its sophomore album, “Take Me Home.”
Spurlock intercuts sequences explaining how One Direction formed – briefly, pop Svengali Simon Cowell had a flash of inspiration when the five teens tried out separately for the British “X Factor” in 2010, heard how well their voices blended, and the rest is history – and he returns to each member’s humble hometown to provide a little context for the archetypes (Zayn’s the quiet, mysterious one; Harry is the mischievous scamp; Louis is the smoldering pin-up; etc.).
Where Spurlock’s film sets itself apart from the tropes is in his exploration, however brief, of the impact this meteoric rise to fame has on the families of the young men.
It’s not a subject often addressed, largely because it treads into uncomfortable territory – Are individuals like Cowell exploiting these kids? – but also, the sight of parents weeping over lost time with their children doesn’t lend itself to a feel-good film.
Although, it must be noted, Spurlock strikes a discordant note near the end of “This Is Us,” staging a sequence where Zayn’s mother and siblings arrive at a home he has purchased for them to live in. The whole episode feels hollow and deliberately designed to stoke sympathy for Zayn. In a film where Spurlock mostly avoids canonizing his subjects, it’s the one time he stumbles significantly. Nevertheless, credit to Spurlock for not shying away from this and other very real aspects of explosive fame – it can’t all be sold-out arenas, screaming fans and millions of dollars fattening corporate coffers.
Elsewhere, “This Is Us” plops viewers in the midst of a One Direction concert, complete with warm smiles, sensitive acoustic ballads and uptempo pop bubblegum. It’s during these sequences that Spurlock has a chance to play with 3-D technology and, apart from a few clever flourishes, those seeing the film in two dimensions won’t have an appreciably different experience.
The litmus test for this and other popaganda films is how well they convey the subject’s popularity to an audience that may not have much familiarity with the pop-culture mainstream.