Review: One Direction: This Is Us
This documentary is guaranteed to turn a profit, so why couldn't Morgan Spurlock have some fun with it?
When I first heard that Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian, was making a film about One Direction, I assumed that he would be listening to nothing but the boyband’s music for 30 days to see if it would induce heart failure. In his 2004 film Super Size Me, Spurlock claimed that eating only food from McDonalds left him 1st 10lbs heavier, and suffering from vomiting, liver disease, mood swings and sexual dysfunction. This latest stunt would surely be enough to finish him off.
Well, not quite. One Direction: This Is Us is a straightforward account of the group’s three-year rise to fame, culminating in two sold-out nights at the 50,000-capacity Foro Sol arena in Mexico City. Even readers who are unfamiliar with the work of Harry Styles, Zayn Malik et al may still be aware that the five-piece was constructed during the seventh series of The X Factor: they finished in third place, but were signed to Simon Cowell’s record label anyway. Cowell pops up towards the start of the film to marvel, with an admirably straight face, at their entirely organic rise to stardom.
Spurlock himself is nowhere to be seen, perhaps because the man in charge of this film is plainly Cowell himself, whose influence hangs over the picture like the smell of a leaky bin bag. One Direction: This Is Us is constructed like an episode of The X Factor, with 3D performances from their Take Me Home concert tour (96 arena dates down and still rumbling onwards) broken up by ersatz candid footage.
There are pre-gig hijinks and post-gig heart-to-hearts, all of which the boys conduct in an at least partial state of undress. Even a visit to the recording studio is conducted sans trousers. Unusually, Cowell has missed a trick here: imagine the scope for product placement if he’d used the film to launch a range of One Direction-themed underpants. Virtually the only part of the film in which the boys aren’t wandering around in their underwear is a brief interlude in which Louis Tomlinson visits his great-grandmother.
What of the music? Well, they rattle through all the hits, like Kiss You, Rock Me and I Would: songs that leave you pining for the harmonic complexity and lyrical daring of Justin Bieber. During a cover of Teenage Dirtbag, by the American rock group Wheatus, Spurlock deploys the film’s one original idea, flash-freezing the boys at the end of each line in natty Street Fighter poses. Other numbers are comparatively lacking in panache: in Little Things, the band sings passive-aggressive twaddle like “You still have to squeeze into your jeans, but you’re perfect to me” while draped over a girder.
Do the group’s fans feel disappointed by these lyrics? More to the point, have they ever actually heard them? Girls screaming at boy band concerts is nothing new, but there is a strange and penetrating new quality to the noise here that calls to mind those things in the Lord of the Rings films that chase after Frodo on horseback.
The One Direction fanbase is a famously passionate bunch, and throughout the film the band talks about them often, in a tone that occasionally borders on panicky. “We just have to keep thanking the fans for everything they’ve done for us,” says Niall Horan during a car journey, while nervously glancing out of the window. An odd moment occurs during a shopping trip in Amsterdam when the boys visit a sportswear shop, and within minutes are hemmed in by a shuffling, groaning horde worthy of Dawn of the Dead.
This Is Us has been made with these fans in mind, and there’s nothing like a guaranteed profit to stifle creativity. This isn’t a problem peculiar to manufactured pop, either: there is a Morrissey concert film coming out later this week that makes One Direction: This Is Us look like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. (Scorsese has an unexpected cameo here, visiting the band backstage with his 13-year-old daughter Francesca.)
But just imagine what a One Direction version of The Last Waltz might have looked like – or what Danny Boyle could have done with these five, given a semi-respectable budget and a brief from Cowell to make "the new A Hard Day’s Night". The money would roll in regardless, so why not have fun too? Britain has a proud tradition of making the best bad music in the world: we allow our pop to go flat at our peril.
One Direction: This Is Us is released on Thursday August 29