Even Martin Scorsese digs One Direction. In the most hilarious scene from One Direction: This Is Us, a 3D rockumentary about the world’s biggest boy band, the director comes backstage to greet the lads before their debut at Madison Square Garden. “I like your stuff,” Scorsese says, shaking hands with all five U.K. crooners. Admittedly, Scorsese seems to be doing a tear-inducing favor for an accompanying girl (his granddaughter, perhaps), but he brings up a point that this film boldly illuminates: What’s not to like? The quintet, made up of Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, and Louis Tomlinson, seems utterly unpretentious, with personalities as infectious as all those earworm-y singles. They harmonize wondrously on stage, singing tunes that are both energetic and respectful toward swarms of largely female fans, and off of it, they’re each shown exuding appreciative glee, which, unlike the downtime in, say, Katy Perry: Part of Me, has nothing to do with preachy, puffed-up ideas about changing people’s lives. That the movie is nearly as innocuous as the band’s chart-toppers is bound to put a target on its back, goading cynics to dismiss it as frivolous bunk. But what makes the performers worth exploring is their truly anomalous nature.
Having each auditioned independently on Britain’s The X-Factor in 2010, the boys, who range in age from 19 to 21, were eventually cobbled together as a group, a move for which Simon Cowell proudly takes credit in the film (“I made the decision in about 10 minutes,” Cowell boasts, even though some sources claim the idea came from X-Factor guest judge Nicole Scherzinger). One Direction eventually lost the show’s competition, but they signed with Cowell’s Syco Records, and saw a rabid, rapidly formed fanbase rocket them to global fame before they’d even cut an album. Thanks in part to social media, the U.K. sensation soon hit the U.S., and in the movie, via an infographic that’s typical for the film’s director, Morgan Spurlock (who takes an uncharacteristic, low-profile approach to the job), we see the viral, worldwide spread on an animated map, which is soon covered with that ubiquitous “1D” logo. In the subsequent tour that This Is Us chronicles, the group bounces restlessly from France to Japan to Verona, each nation loaded with girls who all but convulse before the band in fits of joy. “It’s not unusual; it’s unprecedented,” notes a pundit, adding that not even the Beatles achieved this level of success so early in their careers.
Harry, Zayn, Niall, Liam, and Louis may not be the new John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but they all have remarkable singing chops. Unofficial frontman Harry stands out thanks to his especially impish rebellious streak and an inborn cool that promises he’ll never be settling down from this life (the singer evokes Keith Richards long before he cites him as a hero). However, the bandmates otherwise seem to be on mostly equal footing. There’s no spotlight-hogging Justin Timberlake here, nor does there seem to be a merely competent Nick Lachey, whose future will involve hosting shows that seek out the world’s next One Directions. During the movie’s breathless performance segments, all five guys are deftly engaging the crowd and the cameras, while the stage’s video backdrops are brought to life via visual effects. At one point, the rock-inspired group belts out a cover of Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag,” while they’re each depicted as anything but the song’s title, intermittently adopting the CG qualities of a comic-book-ish set, and appearing as the superheroes so many imagine them to be.
But the boys genuinely don’t seem to see themselves that way. Some of the film’s most memorable moments involve Niall and Liam looking down on oceans of screaming devotees in the street, and controlling their cheers like orchestra conductors. It’s not pomposity, as these kids are as shocked by the whopping spectacle as you are. And unlike Lindsay Lohan and Honey Boo Boo, the One Direction guys don’t seem to have come from households with stage moms and dads. Their ostensibly blue-collar families are simply riding the wave with them, and the movie’s poignancy comes from the bittersweet musings of the parents, who wrestle with empty-nest syndrome, the role-reversal of their children showing them the world, and the sheer surrealism of having a son achieve such monumental fame. Spurlock’s chief mistake is that he seems to yank out confessional, kumbaya hogwash, underlining that which viewers can easily infer from the proceedings. The boys come off as being incapable of fakery, and their recreational antics more than speak for themselves, so the repeated insistence that they’re “just normal guys” plays like a filmmaker’s manipulative concession to genre clichés. Most glaring is a scene that’s wholly out of context, wherein the band mates pitch tents and build a campfire, just so they can sit around it and discuss the future for the cameras. It’s unabashedly staged, but then again, it visually highlights what Spurlock didn’t need to spell out for anyone: that this movie captures a red-hot act at the peak of their glory, like it’s holding onto a flame.