The makers of Katy Perry's concert documentary got lucky in the drama department. The singer's marriage to Russell Brand was collapsing in the wings as she sang "Teenage Dream" with some adult-sized Gummi Bears on stage. Instant tension and real crying materialized out of nowhere. Bad for Perry, good for film.
Otherwise, the current wave of pop music concert docs shares a dilemma: how to bring the subject down to earth? How to show the world that being rich and famous isn't always insanely great and filled with mansions, money and robot butlers?
The answer is snippets of fake-friction. Given the goofy, veggie plate niceness of Celine Dion and the former good-boy status of Justin Bieber (pre-brawling, pre-fast-driving, pre-pissing-in-public), both of the films surrounding their world tours resorted to the epic malady of sore throats. Hoarse vocals beset both of the artists before big arena dates. Would the show go on? Yes, the show would. They even went to the same ENT guy. At least we got to see their famous tonsils blown-up to big screen size. That was cool. And sort of dull.
One Direction: This Is Us, on the other hand, doesn't bother with bummers, even small ones. Fame, according to this movie, is a journey to the center of radness. A hagiographic free-for-all from formerly inquisitive documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, its subjects are revealed to be endlessly happy (if sometimes exhausted by) being showered with money, instant fame and the adoration of little girls whose tear ducts and scream-making apparatuses are locked on full-blast (it's not insanity, says a neurologist, in the film's lone Supersize Me moment, it's extreme pleasure caused by dopamine).
In the early sequences we're treated to the presence of Simon Cowell, seated behind a table, tea cup at the ready, $ signs instead of eyes, a kind of Faustian soul-snatcher smirking with pride as he recounts the story in which he arranged for these five teenagers to become recipients of global superstardom thanks to X Factor, which is another thing he owns. And then he disappears and you're glad about that. Keep the devil around too long and he takes over, impregnating a friend's wife in the process.
That leaves the lads. Worked like war horses (their mothers, one by one, lament that they've seen their children five non-consecutive days in three years of recording and touring), you'd be forgiven for worrying about their well-being and eventual breaking points. But they seem to blow off steam solely by stealing golf carts and pranking one another. They're never seen getting drunk or hooking up with groupies, they never fight and they never swear. And that's probably a pack of lies, but you'd never know it from the movie's skillfully constructed narrative of total happiness, sincere gratitude, disbelief over their dumb luck (to their credit, each of these young men can truly sing), the power of hypnotically joyful pop songs about how wonderful the guys think you are (fan quote: "They love me and they don't even know me!") and a casual, brother-bonded approach to their own position that feels like the most genuine element of the film.
You get the feeling these co-workers have transformed into a tightly-knit pack of best friends, watching each other's backs and determined not to let the horror show that is the music industry pick their bones clean, with Spurlock as their official co-conspirator. So what if life as a pop star isn't really the equivalent of eating cotton candy three times a day and never getting sick? It should be. It should be everything a 10 year-old girl thinks it is. There's time for plenty of harsh reality later.