One Direction is not a band. Only one of the members (occasionally) plays an instrument (the guitar). They don’t write their own songs. They don’t produce their own material. Instead, they are as manufactured as any post-Monkees boy band can ever be, an accidental amalgamation of ex-X Factor contestants who all believed they would be Britain’s next singing sensation. Individually, neither made it through to achieve such sunny Susan Boyle acclaim. Thrown together on a whim by UK music mogul Simon Cowell (remember him, American Idol fans?), Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson have become a worldwide sensation. In fact, as the new concert film/documentary from Morgan Spurlock (!?) tells us, they are one of the first English groups of this sort to ever break big in the U.S.
Yes, you read that right — Morgan Spurlock. The man behind Super Size Me, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is actually sitting behind the lens here, and it’s a wise choice indeed. He’s an actual director, not the faux filmmaker type that many of these PR propaganda marketing machines mandate, and he brings an investigative perspective to this otherwise engaging bit of pre-teen girl scream fluff. In between the mandatory performances, captured as part of their whirlwind tour across the globe, Spurlock discusses fame, the loss of familial identity, their past, their present, and the possible future with the lads, and through it all, there is a decidedly self-deprecating cheek which keeps the 1D boys from becoming bores.
One of the most interesting things we learn from this film is that, as of now, None of these guys have designs on being the next Justin Timberlake, or for that matter, Nick Lachey. They recognize that they are a fad, a fluke, a soon to be forgotten phase in many a 10-to-14-year-old’s life and are willing to profit from that position. They understand it means months away from home (in fact, one of the parents point out that, one day, their kid was going to an X Factor audition, the next he literally disappeared for two years), hanging out with the same five blokes, and basically whoring yourself out for a small piece of that temporary pie called fame. But they are unapologetic about it, even free-wheeling in said recognition. Give them a stage they can sing on and they will gladly take your money, as long as you’re willing to pay.
Spurlock also turns the tables a bit, avoiding the typical backstage shenanigans to show the boys awestruck by various countries and customs (“What do we do with this miso soup?”) and incredibly homesick. When given a vacation, they don’t seem happy so much as relieved to be outside the dog and pony show for once. Harry goes back to the bakery he was working in before hitting it big, while Zayn shows off his self-decorated graffiti room. In fact, the latter gets one of the most telling scenes in the entire film as his mother, clearly someone who never had a lot of money, contacts her son about the home he just bought her. She is so grateful, so genuine in her heartbreaking tears, that you understand what drew Spurlock to this story. These aren’t just cardboard cutouts that some skylarking young gal screams and stares at, longingly. These are boys thrust into a circumstance that everyone dreams about. This is Us is the reality of what that means.
Sure, this is still a hefty bit of record salesmanship, the entire production centered around the group’s recently released “The Best Song Ever” and upcoming album, but thanks to Spurlock’s participation, we get more than the standard shill. One Direction: This Is Us explains a lot about the current cultural zeitgeist, complete with agog moms making their embarrassed daughters blush with shame. But beyond the hype there is an interesting story here, and luckily, Morgan Spurlock found it.