Any adult who has had teenage children is going to find watching Justin Bieber: Never Say Never a bittersweet experience.
Equal parts biopic, concert film and pep rally, the movie's 105 minutes do a good job of conveying the pleasures of pop, courtesy of the very real talents of Justin Bieber who, his 17th birthday just weeks away, has gone, baby, gone from relative obscurity in Stratford, Ont., to global ubiquity in less than two years, becoming a Twitter-driven teen tycoon en route.
For Bieber believers, the film's a celebration of YouTubed youth, of living in an ecstatic moment that seems like forever, a moment the whole world, even Jay Leno, seems to be watching and enjoying. It's about the audiences' joy of being one drop of water among many in a great swell of feeling. In short, it's an evocation of pop manias past - big ones (Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson) and not-so-big (David Cassidy, Bay City Rollers, New Kids on the Block, Ricky Martin, the Jonas Brothers).
That's the sweet spot. And believe me, the hundreds of (mostly) singing, screaming, swooning girls with whom I saw Never Say Never the other evening were very much in the spot. Maddie, a 12-year-old who sat next to me singing along to such hits as One Time and U Smile while waving a glo-stick throughout, told me afterward that she thought the film was "really good" and she'd "definitely" be seeing it again and buying the DVD "for sure" when it's released.
My 16-year-old son, by contrast, claims, like many males his age, to have no time for such idolatry. When told I'd be reviewing Never Say Never, he groaned and declared: "If you don't give it zero stars, I'll be ashamed to call you my dad!" Later he said it would be okay if I gave it one star.
The bitterness (if one can call it that) of the Bieber phenomenon is an adult thing - the realization that pop can be disorienting, dangerous fun, especially at its highest levels. Pop, after all, is what a fat soap bubble does after it's flashed so prettily and briefly in a radiant sky. Pop is what happened to the King of Pop. Pop was the sound of Mark Chapman's pistol.
Of course this cautionary side, the pain and the poignancy, is only touched upon in Never Say Never. Essentially, director Jon Chu, a man best known for the hip-hop dance film Step Up 2: The Streets, offers a rehash of the myth of the Biebs, the stuff we've already read about in Vanity Fair, among many other places.
Amazingly, for a film that promises some up-close-and-personal time beyond the faux reach-outs afforded by the generally ineffectual 3-D effects, there's not one real sit-down chat with the star. Instead, we get a blizzard of baby pictures and videos which demonstrate that Justin was a very cute toddler, a confident hambone from the get-go and the natural byproduct of what happens when the home video camera is always on.
These images, in turn, are inter-cut with testimonials from Bieber's Grade 7 teacher, his soccer coach and his Stratford friends, as well as from his voice trainer, music director, manager, grandparents, mother, a teary-eyed dad (who split with Bieber's mother when he was 10 months old) and, of course, the hair-stylist responsible for the famous flop.
Bieber's mop-top, in fact, provides the single best "adult moment" in the film, when Chu fills the screen with Bieber swishing his tresses back and forth in slo-mo as Etta James (or Dinah Washington?) emotes At Last.
Using concert footage from Bieber's 2010 tour, Chu tries to build suspense by arcing the film toward a climactic performance at New York's Madison Square Garden - what one Bieb handler helpfully describes as "the pinnacle of success for an artist." Mere days before the big show, though, Bieber blows his voice, forcing the postponement of at least one gig. His mother, meanwhile, prays to the angels for "complete healing." Will the Biebs recover in time to take Manhattan? Hey, the movie's called Never Say Never for a reason.
Near the film's end, Beiber's manager, Scooter Braun, muses on how he wouldn't want to be the man to bet on Bieber not having a long career. History, of course, shows that Bieber's chances are slim, even though his abilities are superior to those of many previous teen dreams. The Beatles pulled a neat trick going from I Wanna Hold Your Hand to A Day in the Life in just three short years. They moved with the times, and the times moved them and they moved the times.
It's a feat Bieber will have to duplicate in a world far faster, more competitive and with more distractions than that of the Beatles. Right now he's the sound and face of Now, but tomorrow? Tomorrow never knows.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
- Directed by Jon M. Chu
- Starring Justin Bieber with appearances by Usher, Miley Cyrus, Jaden Smith, Snoop Dogg and audiences of thousands
- Classification: G