A biopic about a child is unusual in its own right. A major movie dedicated to the life story of a current 16-year-old performer is unheard of.
But coming as he does at the vanguard of a generation born into comfortable familiarity with their technological inheritances, Justin Bieber is a case study in firsts. (To wit, he is making headlines these days because of a haircut.)
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
Directed by Jon Chu
Starring (as themselves): Justin Bieber, Usher, Boyz II Men, Miley Cyrus, Ludacris
“Even Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync took years,” opines a supporter discussing Bieber’s meteoric rise to fame. But his comment reflects the star’s not-insubstantial talent less than it does his environment.
Appropriately, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never begins with a young Bieber performing, conspicuously framed by the familiar layout of a YouTube page.
“I’ve never seen fans like his” says Grammy-winning record executive L.A. Reid, seeming to discount the much more demonstrative strain of fandom that has emerged long after the heyday of Beatlemania or even Betamax.
By recording Bieber’s concerts – cell phones outnumber glowsticks at these affairs – and posting their footage online alongside the (more tolerable) official material that emerges, his fans take part in the medium alongside him through their re-exhibition.
Bieber tweets incessantly. And parents wonder why their daughters (and sons? You won’t find out in this movie) can’t shake Bieber Fever.
An interview with Bieber’s mother introduces us to the young star’s backstory, inter-cut with a 10-day countdown to his concert at Madison Square Gardens.
You “haven’t made it until you’ve played in New York and sold out (the Gardens),” so the film takes that foregone conclusion as its endpoint and works its way there from flashbacks to Bieber’s earliest musical days, but with ample concert footage for any tween daughters who haven’t made a pilgrimage in person.
It is a self-evident truth today that a 16-year-old will have digital documentation of every significant moment of his life – and many others besides – so we get to see first-hand Bieber’s early start in music, “for fun,” as little more than a toddler.
What is not a self-evident truth, particularly in the age of manufactured pop stars who court controversy for the attention we unfailingly give to the provocative, is that Bieber is a genuine talent. He’s a virtuosic drummer and musician, who was performing with live adult jazz bands by age eight.
After winning second place in Stratford Idol at age 12, he kept family and friends in the loop via YouTube, where his videos quickly gained a massive following of youngsters, prompting manager Scott “Scooter” Braun to pluck him out of the ether and begin molding Bieber’s raw talent, which demonstrably spans all genres (and now comes backed up by elaborate choreography worthy of any songstress or boy band).
The music is infectiously innocuous, or maybe that’s innocuously infectious: it sure doesn’t hurt to perform with the likes of Usher, Ludacris, and Boyz II Men, but while a few songs stand out (“Love Me” and “Baby” in particular) among innumerable crooning ballads, the rest – including title track “Never Say Never” – blend into a forgettably pleasant mantra of pop-hook-borne goodwill. Fittingly, the most abundant image in the entire film (unless you count the famous mop-top of Bieber himself, harnessed by the power of 3D for one particularly, intentionally gratuitous hair-flip), is the icon of a heart.
Bieber Fever is portrayed as a bona fide grassroots pre-adolescent phenomenon external to “the machine” of Disney (and Nickelodeon). Take that however you want when you see him performing, looking 12, on stage with Disney alumna Miley Cyrus made up to look as though she’s 28.
But fame does curious things to us regardless of age and the interviews with gushing girls run the gamut from first-graders (with still younger concertgoers noticeably under four or five) up to what look like college grads and older 20-somethings.
And while the film doesn’t shy away from demonstrations of Christian faith by Bieber and mother Pattie Mallette, such as their regular pre-concert prayers – including one to rid him of a headache – it makes clear there is more going on than meets the eye.
For instance, you won’t hear that Mallette prayed for guidance after learning prospective manager Braun was Jewish. Bieber’s father, Jeremy, apparently witnesses his son perform in concert for the first time at Madison Square Gardens, yet shortly thereafter he disappears from the film, past and present, without comment by anyone.
Aside from its failure to illuminate much about Bieber and his brief history that wasn’t already splashed across YouTube, aside from the untold minutes of moonstruck concertgoers bawling their little-girl eyes out in sheer adoration, this will be a welcome glimpse at a more naturalistic Justin Bieber for fans accustomed to the mediation of their access to the Biebs by the hyperbolic, hyper-stylized atmosphere of music videos or the constraints of Twitter’s 140-character limit.