There”s a reason Justin Bieber”s “Never Say Never” is coming out Feb. 11: It”s a big, wet juicy Valentine to his fans…actually, make that a sweet, safe peck on the cheek.
At 16, Bieber is the first teen idol to rise to superstar prominence so ably aided and abetted by social networking. Between his discovery via the internet, where his videos have now surpassed 1 billion total views, and his dedication to Tweeting his seeming every thought, Bieber conducts a near-constant conversation with his fans.
It”s no wonder that, as one of Bieber”s adoring -and adorable- tween fans says in the movie, “I think about him, like, 99% of my life.”
The documentary”s main purpose, other than reinforcing Bieber”s overall puppy-like appeal, is to make the fairly convincing case that there is nothing pre-fabricated about Bieber, unlike with so many teen idols. At two, he exhibited such a natural rhythm by beating his hands on chairs that family friends bought him a tiny drum kit. By the time he was eight, a local benefit was put on to raise money to purchase a full size drum kit. But he wasn”t just drumming; Bieber was singing and teaching himself other instruments, as well. Soon, he was entering local talent contests in his hometown of Stratford, Canada (population 32,000) and busking on the steps of the Avon Center.
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He put a video of his audition for the Stratford Star competition (which he lost, by the way) on YouTube. And that”s where record label exec Scooter Braun comes in. He found Bieber on the Internet and faster than you can say, “Holy New Kids on the Block, ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys all rolled into one,” he flew Bieber and his mom, Pattie Mallette, to Atlanta (where they just happen to run into Usher) and begins to manage him, eventually signing him to Usher’s label.
To give the film some shape, the chronological life story of Bieber”s 16 years on this planet is interspersed with a 10-day countdown to his first sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, the holy grail of all concert venues. This allows director John M. Chu to put in lots of performance footage from the dates leading up the MSG show. Plus, the movie is in 3-D, which is a useless device here except for during the concert scenes when Bieber is pointing right at you… yes, you!
There”s not a lot of drama to be wrought out of this Cinderella story, so Chu has to play up the emotional ante where he can. For example, we see his father tearing up backstage at a sold-out arena show in Toronto after the film has spent the first segment stressing that Mallette, who got pregnant when she was not much older than Bieber is now, raised Bieber alone, albeit with generous help from her parents (Bieber”s clearly wonderful relationship with his grandfather is the film”s most touching thread). Mallett and her ex split when Bieber was 10-months old and there”s no mention of his being remotely in the picture until we see him hanging backstage.
We see Mallett frequently, but on the road, at least, she has seemingly abdicated much of her parental duties to Braun and to Bieber”s vocal coach, “Mama” Jan Smith. Early in the film, Braun chastises Bieber after he climbs on a fork lift backstage and says that “90% of my job is training him to be a good man.”
Braun dramatically tells of their tribulations at convincing pop radio to play Bieber and how Bieber visited every pop radio station, “whether they were playing the single or not.” But that”s basic radio promotion 101 and is in no way unique to Bieber or a particularly tough, albeit exhausting, row to hoe: it”s the expected route and part of paying your dues, for any act.
Then we do get some real drama. Three days before his MSG gig, Bieber gets a throat infection and swollen vocal chords. Will he be able to play the biggest gig of his life? What do you think?
This is a sanitized Bieber to be sure: he prays before a meal when out with his childhood pals; he says “poop” instead of a four-letter word for the same thing. He honestly seems like a nice kid and he has a natural graciousness and groundedness about him that is tremendously appealing, but no teenager is this sweet and uncomplaining, much less one who is his own multi-million corporation. He”s even scrubbed clean from the girl-obsessed teenager we see on interviews and on websites ogling Kim Kardashian or talking about his mega-crush on Beyonce. This Bieber is about as non-threatening and non-sexual to his tween and pre-tween fans as a stuffed unicorn or a pony. That”s not to say this isn”t truly him-I think it probably is-but it is Bieber”s best self. He’s presented so appealingly, I found myself wishing I had an 8-year old daughter so he could be her first crush.
As much as the film tries to convince us that Bieber is just a 16-year-old living out his dream–one who happens to ride a Segway around the bowels of MSG, which he sold out in 22 minutes- that notion falls flat when you see him surrounded by his crew and realize that he is supporting dozens of people on his very slender shoulders (his undeveloped physique mattered not to the rabid girls at the premiere: they screamed every time he appeared shirtless, which was probably every 10 minutes or so). But if that pressure ever gets to him, we don”t see it. There is one moment with Smith is laying down the law on how he has to protect his voice even during his downtime, but that”s the closest we come to seeing the pressure on him. The success of the massive machine he”s created hinges upon only one thing: his ability to keep doing what he”s doing.
To its credit, the film occasionally exhibits a puckish sense of humor, as it winks to the camera more than once.There is an ode to Bieber”s well-developed hair swish that plays out in slo-mo to the strains of Etta James” “At Last.” Then, as Bieber Fever builds, we see a montage scored with Grieg”s “In The Hall of the Mountain King,” the fervor escalating in tempo with the music. Plus, you have to appreciate a doc that opens with footage of other YouTube sensations, such as the sneezing baby panda and the cutest kitten in the world.
It”s too soon to know if Bieber will go the way of 99% of teen idols and fade away or can he be one of the rare few that can gracefully segue into an artist with adult appeal like Justin Timberlake (who lost out to Usher in signing Bieber to his label) or even – and the movie brings him up a few too many times to feel like it”s a coincidence -Michael Jackson. But one thing is for sure: you will be rooting for him to succeed after seeing “Never Say Never.”