A New Kind of Rock Doc August 6, 2019
t’s tempting to compare the coming-up stories of pop stars. Whose success was the most akin to an overnight success? Who had the most difficult childhood? Whose
rise to fame was the strangest? We’re likeliest to get acquainted with pop stars through interviews, profiles, and of course the music. But feature-length documentaries about a certain subject occasionally pop up too. The rock-doc has been around for a few decades: head back the 1960s and ‘70s to see what Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones were
up to behind closed doors.
Modern incarnations arguably seem most indebted to Truth or Dare, the 1991 movie all about Madonna and what it was like living through her Blond Ambition Tour. That film expertly wove together resplendently shot concert footage and a compelling narrative, functioning as both a testament to the performer’s on-stage charisma and a seemingly cinema-vérité account of what the pop auteur was like when not singing to thousands in stadiums. It was like a cool, artfully photographed reality show before cool, arfully reality shows were a thing. (Granted, I'm not sure how many earn "cool" and "artfully" as descriptors.)
In the early 2010s, there was an influx of Truth or Dare-style behind-the-scenes rock documentaries. Many of them, now, make for curious viewing experiences. There was Never Say Never, a 2011 movie about the improbable rise of the teenage Candian popster Justin Bieber; Part of Me, an account of Katy Perry's life throughout 2012, the year she became a record-breaking household name; and One Direction: This is Us (2013), which stitches together live footage from the title boy band’s Take Me Home tour and candid interviews.
Watching the movies, which I impulsively watched back-to-back recently, it became clear to me that while most post-Truth or Dare musician-centric documentaries might imitate that film’s style, they never function, in quite the same way, as great drama or even as great concert movies. (The live stuff lacks any sort of photographic deliberation, making stage sequences boring to watch.) What made Truth or Dare riveting was Madonna’s willingness to make herself look like shit as the “lead” — if she’s ever rude or crass when doors are closed, why cover it up? — and a clear belief that if you’re going to make audiences watch your concert in a movie theater, you might as well make it cinematic. There was also an entertaining sense that Madonna was manipulating us a grinning puppetmaster, that she was putting on a performance.
Never Say Never, Part of Me, and This is Us are all scrubbed and shiny, like chrome bumpers. They never feel “real" — they're glossier versions of reality. They’re manufactured to gleam, impress.
How much they offend in this regard varies. Part of Me is close to insufferable. It’s a feature-length press release, overwhelming us with claims that Perry is a hard worker, that she’s a great friend and boss, that she’s helpful in encouraging her fans to be “themselves” — all things I’m sure are all true but are still expounded on in flowery, clichéd terms.
At the same time the movie was being made, Perry’s marriage to the Australian comedian Russell Brand, whom she met while he was filming Get Him to the Greek (2010), was falling apart. Naturally, the movie sweats to make sure it drives home the message that as Perry’s world was expanding, it was also crumbling. Yet, ever-the-trooper, she bravely persevered.
Never Say Never operates similarly, except its gist is that, isn’t it amazing that this kid from Nowheresville, Canada is such a big deal before he even turned 16? This is Us comparably works hard to hammer it in that amidst this quintet’s super-quick rise to the top, they’ve remained humble, dedicated to each other as friends and bandmates, remaining aware that all this is probably going to be over sooner than they think.
These people are obviously talented. The ways in which they were plucked from obscurity are fascinating. Perry grew up in an extremely strict, religiously fanatical household; she and her siblings were so censored that there were certain cultural artifacts — among them pieces of entertainment catered to children — they couldn’t interact with because they were supposedly sinful. After years of trying to form an artistic identity, Perry put out a Christian-rock record under her given name, Katy Hudson, when she was a teenager. She later signed to, then was dropped by, a major label, who tried to turn her into the next Avril Lavigne. (Her music at the time was most like that of Alanis Morrisette, who was her biggest inspiration.) Then, finally, she made her breakthrough in 2008 with the dull-witted, queer-baiting single “I Kissed a Girl,” which came off the successful album One of the Boys. Early in the movie, Perry's sister, who looks just like her but with nut-brown hair, notes that while Perry was often characterized in the press as an overnight success, she’d actually been working for years, and feverishly.
The five members of One Direction individually competed on a British singing-competition show called The X Factor (which now exists, in a different incarnation, in the United States). After getting voted off the program, the creator of the series, Simon Cowell, decided to put each boy together in a Backstreet Boys-like group, thinking that their individual weaknesses would be obscured if next to each other. They didn’t place even as a unit, but when One Direction came back — something that was promised on stage — it was with a force.
Bieber was raised by a teenage mother and her parents, who talk about him in the documentary as if he was special in the same way any family talks about even the most mediocre of their descendants. The twist was that Bieber actually was a Mozart-like prodigy. He could sing with dulcet R&B flavor and drum like Sheila E. just barely into elementary school. As he aged, he picked up other instruments: keyboard, trumpet, and guitar. He started competing in local talent shows. Then in 2007, the talent agent Scooter Braun randomly clicked on a video of Bieber on YouTube and zeroed in on him. Celebrity backers, from Usher to Justin Timberlake, flocked to get a load of this kid. Once enough promotion was done and music was out, so did audiences, which mostly comprised teenage girls who might start sobbing if you were to mutter Bieber's name at an emotionally vulnerable time.
hese movies don’t have anything particularly interesting to say. They read as magazine profiles minus the subtly skeptical point of view of a writer. They're bland, if digestible. They home in on obvious narrative choices
and look at conflict romantically. Part of Me is so chintzily wide-eyed that by the time it begins considering how Perry’s depleting marriage might be taking a toll, for instance, it comes to look like more of a to-be-forgotten bump in the road than something worth spending time with. We learn very little about Perry’s artistry: why she composes her stage shows the way she does, what her visual aesthetic might say about her (at the time, it was sort of like a pin-up model crashing into a Valley girl and a Candyland character), or why she’s so committed to being prolific to an almost unhealthy degree.
In Never Say Never, the utmost issue comes when Bieber starts having throat troubles days before headlining Madison Square Garden. But the bigger question — isn’t anyone worried that having this kid do so much at once is a tad exploitative? — isn’t much considered. Little meaningful time is spent talking one on one with Bieber, engaging with his world view. It’s too much about what his loved ones, what the higher-ups promoting him, think of him. Which, of course they’re going to speak glowingly while never talking about how much they’re parasitically benefitting.
At least This is Us, while still infused with the same sort of off-putting optimism, takes the time to briefly ruminate on the freakishness of fame in an organic-feeling way. The best parts of the movie come when we’re with the boys’ parents. In a wrenching scene, the dad of one of the group’s less-considerable members, Liam Payne, talks about how disappointing it is that there’s nothing he can do, really, that will impress his son now that he’s experienced so much in such a short span of time. Near the end of the movie, Zayn Malik, who, along with Harry Styles, is undeniably the act’s most talented (he was also, later, the first member to embark on a solo career), buys his mom a house. She cries on the phone while thanking him. She also brings up that she wishes she was the one buying him the home, not the other way around. Malik hangs up just as a lump starts forming in his throat.
When these movies came out, they functioned both as companion pieces to meteoric come-ups and as documents of big, never-to-be-recreated moments. I’m not sure what I would have thought of them had I seen them the same year they were released. Would I have found them illuminating? Would I have been more disposed to becoming a fan? Now more so than ever they come across as puff pieces, if still diverting ones.
Clearly, fame has taken a major toll on Bieber, who after years of professionally grinding and abusing the freedoms of major fame, seems totally burned out, almost traumatized, which only undergirds the issues I have about his myopic, way-too-optimistic documentary. Perry, who’s at a weird point in her career — past a phase where she tried and failed to be a “political” pop star, now trying to recreate herself to little avail — was best around that 2012, when she was, at least in terms of her public persona and her music, still seemingly in on the joke of being someone who makes frivolous, consistently chart-topping music. The members of One Direction now seem content doing their own thing. Except now the doc’s a bit poignant, given that Styles is the only one who seems capable of retaining his fame. (Though Malik’s first album was a success for the most part, his sophomore effort tanked on the charts. You don’t hear as much about the others, even if fans are wont to say what they're making is actually pretty good.)
What can be learned from all these movies, aside from biographical content, is that what makes a behind-the-scenes rock documentary great in the long-run is a readiness to simply leave us, unanchored, in the world of a popular musician, with little care around whether we’re supposed to “like” these people. Too much padding — and all three documentaries have too much of it— renders it all something like unimaginative fiction, which you don’t watch a documentary for. Imaginative fiction, like maybe Truth or Dare is, is easier to get on board with. C
On Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Katy Perry: Part of Me, and One Direction: This is Us