Watching Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, you get the distinct impression of a child hijacked by a business model desperate to maintain its relevancy.
The screams are so piercing they put permanent holes in your psyche -- and good thing too. It allows the propaganda pleasantries to sink deep into your otherwise smarter, more savvy aesthetic. As raging, unexplainable hormones cause cultural and internal chaos, as little children who don't know any better bedevil their still struggling sense of sex with the cutesy boy page iconography in front of them, the passion pours forth -- honest, exuberant, limitless, real. There is no false front, no pretending or pretense. We are now all witnesses in their particular house of worship, failed pawns in a marketing managed musical realm where true talent is carved up and catered to in shapeshifting shamelessness. Others have walked here before, from the days of Dion to the bedlam of the Backstreet Boys.
But for converts of the Jesus known as Justin, nothing takes the place of their adolescent angel. Thanks to the social network skyrocket realities of YouTube, this unknown Canadian kid, a seemingly good boy raised by a Christian teen mom, has become the latest in a long line of wetting wee one phenoms. He's everywhere, from the top of iTunes to a comedian's patented punchline. He's a fever, a pestilence, a wave of workmanlike drive that often threatens to usurp its own motives and drown its denizens. As viewed through the crocked lens of the recent documentary, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, he's yet another complicated case study in mass hysteria. One day, a college of PhDs will come up with the answer to how overnight sensations like this become interchangeable elements in a familiar folklore/coming of age. The psychological elements alone will drive many to dissertation.
Watching the film, you get the distinct impression of a child hijacked by a business model desperate to maintain its relevancy. His handlers do come across as part Svengali, part windowless van owners, maneuvering him through preprogrammed stages of saturation, all in the hope that he rakes in as much money before the kiddies learn better. Bieber's story -- or at least, the one being forwarded here - highlights a young genius, capable of playing jazz drums at 10 and busking for change on Great White Northways when he was 12. With his British boys' choir voice and puppy dog prettiness, he was an antsy idol in the wings. A few uploads later and the little girls definitely 'undertand.' As with many former fancies, Bieber is that androgynous combination of X and Y, chromosomes as confused as the feelings felt by his candy necklace obsessed fans. He's no different than Leif Garrett or David Cassidy, guy-girlie enough to make the underage demo feel safe about soiling themselves.
But Never Say Never does him a disservice in more than one way. Bieber can clearly perform. He's a natural, the rare one of a kind who can sit with a guitar and a microphone and win us over with a simple song. Sadly, LA Reid and the rest of this label lackeys have decided that audiences -- at least ones still trying to figure out fractions -- don't want prodigies...they want POP STARS. And in 2011, that means a meandering combination of hip-hop beat and nursery rhyme creep, backing tracks so overproduced and guitar hero treaclely that they cause almost instantaneous diabetes. A Bieber song is like eating one of those bacon cheeseburgers served on a donut bun. It's unfathomably bad for you, but after digging down through the various offensive elements, you find a core of actual value. It may be minute and mistreated, but it's still there.
Take the sequence where a then unknown Bieber makes the radio station circuit, playing acoustically for all who will have him. As an irritating Internet sensation, many slagged him off and figured they'd get a devious Daniel Tosh comedy segment at of the appearance. But the minute the genial guest picks up his guitar and starts crooning a dreamy ballad interpretation of "One Time", everyone (including more than one cynical middle aged audience member) are won over. Of course, the fanbase don't care. They want physics defying back-up dancers, loud auto-tune flash, and the guest poetry of a well placed Will Smith offspring (in this case, the questionably talented Jaden). With cameos from such outside the age bracket as Boyz II Men and Ludacris, the concert footage inclusion of Lil J and Ms. Miley makes sense. You want to remind everyone of the last great slight hope while keeping your current fad gadget front and center.
As for the rest of the reverie, it's a combination of con job and carnival barking, a sonic sideshow aimed at those too immature to recognize the hellacious hard sell. Bieber may be given the kind of maudlin history that only Golden Age Hollywood could concoct (broken home, undeniable spirit, voice of a savior, wayward father reluctantly coming back into his life), but the rest is all back slapping "isn't he great" jerrymanders. As you watch the man who made it all possible (at least, according to this version of the facts), you imagine his palms must burn from all the self-aggrandizing handwringing he does. Similarly, vocal coaches and doctors argue rest while the boy unselfishly attends to his Bieliebers. Our aural saint sacrifices himself time and again during Never Say Never. Whether it's giving it all onstage or taking time to meet and greet all that he can, his sonic sermon on the mount is spread to as many in braying bud stage nation as possible.
That's why this documentary is like a tent revival -- all screaming, spirited pre-teens aside. The spirit of Bieber is this thick in this particular chapel, the combination of cheap drug store perfume and candy flavored lip gloss enough to give a mastodon a splitting migraine. As the lamentations of love mix with the responsorial nature of each chorus, the crowd grows into the kind of terrorized tizzy that marks a true near religious experience. It's the memory everyone will remember the next day during recess -- and the one they will mock come high school and beyond. While it's clear that the kid's got the chops to outlast the frothed female insanity, he may not have a place. Many a perplexed former teen idol sits in their middle aged funk, fingering a bottle of alcohol (or worse) and wondering where all that limelight went. If they don't self destruct, they become puppets in a pantomime which does little except set nostalgia back several wistful waves.
Having said that, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is not a bad film -- it's just not a true one. It fails to paint the child star as just that -- a potential flash in the pan that will have to work harder than Sisyphus to keep that boulder known as irrelevancy from running him over, permanently. Again, he seems to be genuinely gifted and quite capable outside the brazen bubblegum factory, but so have many within the system, and unless you're bringing sexy back, few still care. Like a Sunday service, the cinematic experience feels like a communal obligation, easily forgotten on Monday by almost all except the most fundamental. As they grow, his devotees will abandon ship, leaving his adrift without little support except himself. Luckily, Bieber seems capable of standing on his own two sneakered feet. Here's hoping he can survive once those who once stood with him move on to another greener, giddy pasture.