Until I walked into the theater tonight, I had never heard a single note of a Justin Bieber song. I’d never seen him in motion. I knew still photos of him in passing and I saw an appearance he made on “The Daily Show” last week, which made me laugh. Right away, the impression I got of him was a kid who is willing to puncture his own celebrity, and who was enjoying the play side of things. He struck me as a genuine kid, still impressed enough by the pop culture he’s a part of to have fun with it.
That impression was only reinforced by the film, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never 3D,” which opens today to hordes of screaming girls everywhere. I was actually invited to the big crazy LA Live premiere this week and intended to go, just to witness the mayhem, but I’m glad I didn’t. That experience would have been all about how the 3D didn’t end at the screen, since I’d see it surrounded by the people in that film and of that pop music world right now. It’s impossible to see a film in a setting like that and not have the overall experience be what you’re reacting to, so maybe it’s better that I went the way I did.
Instead, I ended up seeing a Thursday midnight screening of the film about four minutes from my house. Paramount was determined that I needed to see the film, so when I told them there was a screening that close and that convenient, they called in a ticket for me. At that point, what did I have to lose?
I’ll say up front that part of my reaction to the film is as a father, as a parent looking at a documentary that is not only about the rise of this kid from a rural suburb in Ontario, Canada to selling out Madison Square Garden on his first big tour, but also about the mythbuilding that is already a big part of his world. It is canny and well-made and genuinely emotional. It is, by any standard, a good movie. That doesn’t mean I’m going to run out and get a CD of his tomorrow, but while I may not have the Bieber Fever, I can appreciate what it is that drives the fans, and I have a real respect for what he’s accomplished so far.
I took some real heat when I didn’t like the Michael Jackson documentary “This Is It,” and I even gave the film a second chance when it came out on Blu-ray. My wife wanted to see it, so we picked it up and she and her mother watched it, and the boys watched it with them, and Toshi was generally impressed by Michael Jackson and some of the dancing. He’s a fan of a very specific type of musical, the Gene Kelly films, because that’s what I like, and if you watch Michael Jackson dance, there’s a whoooooole lot of Gene Kelly in there. I think that film doesn’t work as a movie, but the value is in the archeological aspect of “here’s some rehearsal footage. The end.” That is not the case with “Never Say Never.” Director Jon Chu has done a nice job of building this as a film, as a solid documentary, with a heavy side order of self-aware image-building. It is revealing in ways it may not have been intended to be, but it is crafted well, and the 3D concert footage is designed to be very experiential. Chu wants you to see how hard the people on stage are working, how crazy it is behind the scenes, and just how much that audience feeds on it and then feeds it back in crazy prepubescent emotional hypermedia. It doesn’t matter if you like the music or if you ever plan to listen to it again… the film is about this kid, this YouTube phenomenon who is living out the modern media dream. He was self-built, and here he is, sixteen, and already he’s doing things that artists three times his age are just now doing. He is a social networking superstar of the first generation, and that’s the story Chu tells, carefully and with a keen narrative sensibility.
The film opens with familiar YouTube clips that everyone sent to everyone else being opened from an e-mail. The baby panda sneezes. The twin babies laugh at each other in a feedback loop. The priest falls in the pool mid-wedding. Click. Laugh. Click. Laugh. And in the theater tonight, girls cooed on cue at the videos, and the crowd laughed like they were seeing these memes of Christmas Past for the first time.
And then click. And there’s this little kid, singing his ass off. And it’s impressive.
And that’s where The Justin Bieber Story starts. That’s really what Chu was hired to do here… tell The Justin Bieber Story, once and for all and on the record and here we go. And I can see why that was his job. It’s a compelling story. His mother Pattie Mallette had him when she was still a teenager, and his dad left when he was under a year old. She raised him alone, living near her parents who played an active part, and he ended up falling into both sports and music as he grew up. The section of the film that is biography is sweet and sort of touching, and I definitely responded as a parent. There is not a single Dina Lohan in sight in Bieber’s life, and the team that have helped make him the pop sensation that he is now include Scooter Braun and Usher, who both seem to genuinely care about Justin.
The key part of that sentence is “seem to,” because I don’t know. I know what the movie shows me, and it seems that this is already an established and well-known part of the mythology. The theater I was in tonight was probably half-full, and when Scooter Braun first showed up in the film, there was scattered applause. This is Justin’s manager, and he’s a celebrity to these kids because of the story. Braun was the one who saw Justin on YouTube. Braun was the one who flew Pattie and Justin to Atlanta. Braun was the one who believed first, who took no after no after no until he finally put Justin together with Usher and LA Reid. And the movie lays it all out, follows every step of the process using home video and photos and the YouTube videos and interviews, and the whole time, there’s Madison Square Garden out there as a goal, as the end of the journey, and everything’s building towards it.
There are several major guest stars like Boys II Men and Miley Cyrus and Jaden Smith (I laughed out loud when he was identified as “Jaden Smith, Karate Expert” when he first appeared) and Ludacris and, yes, Usher. But it’s really all about Justin, and here’s what makes me like him. He’s an organic star. He’s someone who didn’t have any industry connections when he started, who came from an absolutely ordinary childhood. I’ve written about how stardom is changing, and how in the age of social media, the key to building an audience is making them feel special, and that’s what the film demonstrates… the way Bieber’s audience claims ownership of him. That relationship is a big part of what the movie deals with, and we see how he makes his concerts an extension of that. I’d even argue the 3D is part of that, with the way Bieber plays to the 3D camera and treats the audience like a person.
It’s a pop artifact, light and breezy, and while I doubt I’ll ever consider myself a fan, I can understand the fandom. There were times in my teenage years when I was manic about various bands or various comedians, when I would road-trip to see people perform, and I remember what it meant to me to see those shows and have those experiences. Watching the faces of the crowd, watching the faces of Justin’s family as he performs, watching the energy that moves from the crowd to the stage and vice-versa… I’ve been there. I understand that. I respect that and wouldn’t mock it just because it’s not music I’d personally buy or listen to. That’s why it works for me as a film… because it captures that in a very real way.
If you are a fan, you’re going to be in heaven, and if you’re not, you probably won’t go. But I’m glad I saw the film. And for me, it all came down to Pattie Malette and Jeremy Bieber, the parents of the superstar, shown at different times during that Madison Square Garden show, and their reactions. I came home tonight from the film and looked at my boys, both sleeping in their room, and all I want for them in this world is for them to find their passion in life and be able to make a living at it. That, to me, is perfect satisfaction, and it’s not about fame or fortune… it’s about genuinely finding some joy in what you do. Justin Bieber is at home on that stage, a natural, a kid who was born to perform, and at sixteen, he has found his place in the world. And that’s what his parents are seeing on the stage. Not money. Not fame. But joy. And you may think me a sap for saying this about something as manufactured and commercial as this, but I found that sort of beautiful. And that’s certainly not what I expected when I sat down.
“Justin Bieber: Never Say Never 3D” opens everywhere today.