[30 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Argue all you want about their manufactured status, but three of the four Monkees were actual musicians. Mike Nesmith was a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter (The Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum”) while Peter Tork earned his chops playing in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village. Mickey Dolenz was almost exclusively an actor, having appeared on TV as a young child, but Davy Jones was a musical theater star, meriting great acclaim (and a Tony nomination) for his performance as the Artful Dodger in Roger Bart’s Oliver! . So when they were thrown together by entertainment executives, given songs to sing by Don Kirschner, and tossed out to the masses like mimics of The Beatles, their eventual reputation as being prefabricated and fake was understandable, if not wholly true.
In the case of One Dimension, a similar argument can be made as well. All five members of the latest UK boy band - Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson - had dreams of being singers. All could carry a tune pretty well and each decided their destiny lied with an appearance on Britain’s number one get famous quick expose, The X-Factor. All five auditioned. All five failed to make it through. But show stalwart Simon Cowell saw something in them and, on a lark, decided to put them together to see what would happen. A few international smash hits later and the guys have enough pre-teen clout to warrant their own Jonas/Miley/Bieber/Perry concert film experience, This Is Us. Unlike those previously mentioned tired teen idols, however, the One Direction camp hired an actual documentarian, Super Size Me‘s Morgan Spurlock, to make their marketing tool, and the end result is a telling peak into our modern cultural concerns.
The standard set-up applies. We learn of 1D’s origins, the various personalities within the group, the unusual circumstances of their past and individual home fronts, and the current pandemonium they are causing all around the planet. Girls are in a wet panty panic over these blokes, turning their tour into a sold out money minting sensation, and for once, the gents at the center are in on it. You see, unlike all their high minded chart peers, the One Direction dudes don’t fancy themselves real musicians. They’re singers. They’re product. They’re grounded to the notion that they will do whatever it takes to be as popular as they can be before the bloom falls off this particular adolescent scream queen riot and they are back to working in a bakery (like Harry did before he hit it big). No delusions of grandeur. No high minded battles with handlers over artistic integrity or creative outlet.
No, One Direction may be the first manufactured musical group ever that’s also in on the joke. They may be wide eyed innocents (the movie features them fawning over every new international city they visit like it’s their first time ever stepping outside the confines of the UK…because it more or less is) but they are savvy from a business perspective. Everything they do, every pre-written song they sing or previous pop hit they cover brings them closer to the end game - the almighty British pound. They get that they are being used and will go along with the ruse because, in this case, the means justifies the bigger bank account. Now, Spurlock doesn’t get the guys to sit down and dish on how they plan of profiting from their fad gadget appeal. Instead, he lets us into their world where there are no delusions about besting a certain group from Liverpool.
Some of this comes from their individual backgrounds. Both Zayn and Niall are from working class backgrounds and their respective parents are just pleased that their sons don’t have to face the hardships they have. In one of the film’s most touching moments, the former gives his mother the house he always promised, and their shared moment of recognition (over the phone, of course) is more telling than a dozen quizzical Q&As. Similarly, Niall enjoys some mid-tour R&R which allows his homesickness struggles to come to the fore. One of the most telling statements made in This Is Us comes from one of the adults when they say, “One day, we sent our kids off to audition for The X-Factor, and the next, we literally didn’t see them again for two years.”
Indeed, Spurlock highlights the hard work involved in being incredibly popular. The boys are woken from mere minutes of sleep to sing harmonies on an upcoming single, the half-drowsy performances perked up by a veritable supercomputer of technological aids. The whole hotel to arena to bus to airport to taxi to hotel to theater routine is harrowing, as are the number of day, nay WEEKS, between periods of (incredibly brief) downtime. As they drink in the adulation, as they harmonize and flash their tattoos at the crowd, you can tell they are having fun. They are also young enough, foolish enough, and in 2013, cynical enough to understand that this is their moment. To let it slip by without milking it for everything they can would be the ultimate failure.
It’s also indicative of Spurlock’s approach. He wants to dig behind the facade, to pull out the (partial) truths about life in a post-millennial boy band. There are no tired confessionals where someone - Liam, Louis - laments the fact that they can’t participate in the songwriting or playing process, no grating grandstanding where they want to be taken seriously as artists. They know they are cute. They know they can sing. They know they can make money at both. That’s all that matters. While it may sound materialistic, or part of a production hoping that everyone, including a cynical middle-aged film critic, will drink the 1D Kool-aid. the truth is that, by hiring Spurlock, the makers of This Is Us actually found a way to live up to that title. This may be nothing more than a smart, strategic piece of PR, but thanks to the individual capturing the commerce, we get more than mere hyperbole.