If all actors want to be directors, maybe all directors want to be rock stars – or make movies about them: Even filmmakers who enjoy their own brand of pop stardom find it impossible to resist when the real thing comes calling.
Thus, today’s release of “One Direction: This Is Us,” which marks yet another collaboration between well-regarded moviemaker – in this case, the ubiquitous Morgan Spurlock – and a teen-pop phenom, in this case the London-based, English-Irish boy band made up of Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, aka the Fab Five.
The original Fab Four didn’t have a doc made about them till they were breaking up – “Let It Be,” which starred the Beatles in their post-apocalyptic/Ono period. But in recent years, especially, it’s become far more common for pop sensations to become nonfiction film attractions, a la “Katy Perry: Part of Me” (2012), “Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience” (2009), and “Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert” (2008) — all made by relatively unknown directors likely to remain so.
Not so with “This Is Us,” whose director arose from obscurity via the anti-Big Mac movie “Super-Size Me” and who, in a Teen Vogue interview about his new film, sounded like he had ingested several jumbo editions of Tiger Beat:
“We went with each of them to their hometowns and filmed with their families. One of the goals for me was to show an intimate and different side of the boys that you normally wouldn’t get – something different than what you’d see in a typical interview – like seeing them in their homes with their families and spending days off just being regular guys. Day to day, that’s who they are. They’re just regular folks, like you and me. They’re ordinary guys who have been put into such an extraordinary situation, and they’ve done an incredible job at dealing with that.”
Nonfiction filmmakers, by definition, dwell in a realm renowned for obscurity. Even so, not all documentarians want the attention that comes with the promotion of evanescent pop sensations. When Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of “An Inconvenient Truth,” was asked to make “It Might Get Loud,” with rockers Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, he happily agreed. And he unhappily recoiled in horror when his name was connected to the making of the “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” the 3-D concert film of 2011 (eventually directed by Jon M. Chu of “GI Joe: Retaliation”).
But “Never Say Never” arrived just as Bieberology was entering its presumed endgame, the lifespan of a teen sensation being essentially five years (if a fan becomes obsessed at say, 10 years old, by 15 they’re embarrassed). One Direction burst into the pop consciousness via “The X Factor” in 2010, and so, right now, are at their peak.
“This Is Us” may be a purely commercial enterprise, but the connection between film and pop often has resulted from a labor of love, not including all the bad Elvis movies. Martin Scorsese, whose fiction films have made brilliant use of rock songs (think of the opening of “Mean Streets” or the ending of “Goodfellas”), has made a handful of documentaries, almost all about music he was emotionally attached to (“The Last Waltz,” 1978; “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” 2005; “Shine a Light,” 2008; “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” 2011). Jonathan Demme has made three documentaries just about Neil Young (“Heart of Gold,” 2006; “Trunk Show,” 2009; “Journeys,” 2011).
These are movies that attempt to capture an artist in something approximating reality. Such has been evident in the work of Scorsese and Demme, which concern veteran artists with long careers and catalogs. “This Is Us,” on the other hand, is about a band with almost no history, no assurance of long-term popularity, but with a fan base fervent enough to demand that their idols’ moment be captured now – something that was neither technically possible, nor commercially feasible in years gone by, but which now can be done, almost before the concert lights cool.