UK pop group One Direction is as manufactured as they come — the five guys were literally assigned to perform together after auditioning as solo acts for “The X Factor” — so it’s no surprise that the concert documentary “One Direction: This is Us” feels like just another marketing tool. And as slick, safe, straightforward 90-minute commercials go, “This is Us” also proves to be likeable harmless fluff.
It’s all about selling an image, but why get worked up when the image is five everyday lads who love nothing more than having a laugh? Forget about digging into the individual personalities or quirks of Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. The singular focus of “This is Us” is strictly “boys will be boys.” What are the guys of One Direction like when they’re not on stage, you ask? Well, a lot like they are when they’re on stage. They goof off, they play pranks, they joke around, they’re like five happy energetic puppies! Isn’t it adorable?
The off stage antics that make up the bulk of “This is Us” never feel fake (unless the staging is transparent and deliberate, as when Niall puts on a costume and makeup to interact with unsuspecting fans as a cranky security guard), but there’s no question every moment of what we see has been carefully selected to make self-proclaimed Directioners swoon (including a multitude of gratuitous shirtless shots).
Director Morgan Spurlock made a name for himself attacking McDonalds in “Super Size Me” but also made “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” a documentary entirely about the rise of product placement in entertainment. He knows how to sell, and that’s exactly what he does here. (He even gets celebrity endorsements from Martin Scorsese and Chris Rock, who briefly pop up with their daughters backstage at a concert proving themselves not just good sports but good fathers too.)
It helps when your subjects are walking billboards, and the One Direction guys are all dutiful ambassadors for their brand. Harry (the one who dated Taylor Swift) and Niall (the blonde Irish one) do most of the talking. Harry’s sarcastic. Niall’s exuberant. They like to have fun. Get the point?
As thin as all the off stage material is, it’s actually more impressive than the concert footage. Given the group’s limited repertoire and merely adequate performance skills (they’re mostly okay singers, less than okay dancers), “This is Us” rarely dwells on the actual music. What little imagination Spurlock demonstrates in capturing the performances — one song turns the guys into comic book heroes, another has ’80s arcade style visuals that pop off the screen in 3D — seems to say more about him than it does about the songs.
Still, based on what the movie allows us to see, the One Direction quintet appear to be nice kids with solid perspectives on their sudden rise to fame. There’s just enough talk about how lucky they feel and how grateful they are for their success to make it believable. And just enough action to back up that talk. They give back to their parents (whose tearful interviews about missing their pop superstar spawn while they’re off on a world tour are surprisingly moving) and work with charities. They even discuss the fleeting nature of fame. At one point, Louis sums up the whole movie by reflecting that he hopes One Direction is remembered as a boy band who “just had fun … normal guys, but terrible terrible dancers.”
That’s the innocuous image “This is Us” wants to sell. Mission accomplished.