It might seem curmudgeonly for a baby-boomer critic to diss the Brit boy band that currently has frantic tween girl-fans shrieking with the kind of out-of-body hysteria that makes those swooning, newsreel Beatles groupies of the ’60s seem somewhat quaint by comparison.
A knee-jerk reaction to the squeaky-clean bio-documentary, “One Direction: This Is Us,” might be that Harry, Niall, Zayn, Liam and Louis, the boy popsters that make up One Direction, currently the hottest pop band in the world, don’t hold a candle to John, Paul, George and Ringo.
A cynical assessment might compare them instead to the made-for-TV band The Monkees, rather than the Beatles, who sprang more organically from the hothouse environs of working-class Liverpool and the basement grit the Cavern Club. Anyway, comparisons to the Fab Four wouldn’t be at all germane if the filmmakers here didn’t repeatedly bring them up.
But if director Morgan Spurlock’s peppy film does one thing surprisingly well, it’s to soften any cold-eyed skepticism of One Direction’s well-documented genesis as Simon Cowell’s by-the-numbers creation from his British “X Factor” talent show (Cowell has attempted to replicate that Svengali feat on his American version of the show, to far less success). Truth is, after 90 minutes watching them perform on world-tour concerts and spending time with them backstage and in their solid, blue-collar homes, you can’t help but like them.
They’re handsome, appealing, talented, goofy and admirably modest young guys who produce a fizzy, infectious brand of pop music (although thus far they lack any hint of that enduring Lennon-McCartney spark of songwriting genius).
Spurlock essentially plays it safe and sanitary (is that producer Cowell behind the scenes, pulling strings?), presenting the boys in the best possible light. In this world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, there’s no hint of smoking, drinking, groupies or anything unwholesome. Between snazzy images of their elaborate, high-tech concerts, cameras follow them as they rollick and prank around back stage, stealing stagehands’ forklifts and wrestling with security guards.
There are surreal meta-moments (director Martin Scorsese, maker of “The Last Waltz,” one of the classic rock docs, pops in backstage with his daughter to say hi), tear-jerking moments (Spurlock is on hand when Zayn’s mum opens the door on a new house her son bought for her), and cheeky-funny moments (Harry gets his bum pinched by a granny when he visits a bakery where he once worked).
And, of course, there are musical moments, where Spurlock mobilizes an arsenal of 3D cameras to offer eye-popping views of concerts from Mexico to Japan to London’s famed O2 Stadium and highlights a pleasing array of songs from the “Up All Night” and “Take Me Home” albums.
What comes clear is the One Direction is a boy band all right, but as Zayn points out, they’re “a cool boy band,” far less mechanical and much more freestyle than predecessors such as the New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys. Back to the Beatles again, Spurlock is no Richard Lester, and “One Direction: This is Us” is no “Hard Day’s Night,” but as a showcase for a talented band of nice guys, this movie hits a thoroughly pleasant note.
- Dennis King
“One Direction: This Is Us”
2 ½ stars
Starring: Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne
(Shirtless guys in underwear)