Attached to many prints of the new 3-D rock doc One Direction: This Is Us are advertisements for an anti-bullying campaign, in which members of the eponymous group urge its fans to “live nice.” That slogan just about sums up the innocuous appeal of the film’s marquee attractions, as well as that of this gushing tribute to One Direction’s staggering, international popularity. Assembled on the U.K. talent show The X-Factor, when Simon Cowell decided that five teenage crooners might as well croon together, One Direction has an origin story as wholesome and uncomplicated—as nice—as its music. Following the chart-topping British boy band on a whirlwind world tour, This Is Us intersperses stereoscopic concert footage with lots and lots of scenes of the polite, barely pubescent lads horsing around, trying on clothes, and generally behaving like kids having the time of their young-adult lives. For uninitiated chaperones and good-sport dates, warming to the boys’ aw-shucks charisma will be considerably easier than falling for their sugary, disposable arena-pop.
At the helm of this fans-only affair is Morgan Spurlock, the stunt-loving documentary gadfly who directed Super Size Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. There’s no room here for the filmmaker’s usual front-and-center shtick: He doesn’t appear on camera at all, which automatically elevates This Is Us to the upper echelons of his oeuvre. Nothing if not deft at conveying loads of information in a colorful manner, Spurlock proves himself ideally suited to the gig, which mainly requires him to lay out the monster overnight success of his subjects while toggling between onstage theatrics and backstage antics. A few moments feel quintessentially Spurlockian, such as an amusing (yet brief) attempt by a scientist to explain the chemical effect One Direction has on its predominately female fan base. (Martin Scorsese also makes a cameo, which was probably the highlight of Spurlock’s hired-gun tenure on the film.) Mostly, however, This Is Us counts on the musicians to supply the personality—a strategy that makes it feel more like an anonymous mash note than a warts-and-all glimpse behind the curtain. Then again, what warts?
Here and there, the faintest glimmer of actual drama presents itself. One of the parents, for example, laments that her son hasn’t been home since he left for The X-Factor; in another scene, a young heartthrob confesses concern that the girls only like him because he’s famous. For the most part, though, This Is Us plays like a victory lap for its adolescent stars, five best friends surprisingly aware that their fame and fortune won’t last forever. More delusional is the agreed-upon conclusion that the band wouldn’t succeed if it was missing even a single one of its largely interchangeable members. Who do these kids think they are, The Beatles? Actually, Spurlock makes that connection more than once—first by noting that One Direction has conquered the world even faster than its Liverpool predecessors, second by casting the new British invaders in a loose A Hard Day’s Night homage. Will earworm-catchy ditties like “What Makes You Beautiful” eventually give way to psychedelic greatness? Only time will tell, though the boys may have to stop living nice—and start partying with Bob Dylan—before they can get in touch with their own rubber souls.