Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

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Never Say Never, a concert documentary following the rise of Justin Bieber from YouTube hit to Madison Square Garden headliner, is essentially a propaganda film, indoctrinating teens and skeptical parents into the Bieber Army one adorable baby photo and pandering fan montage at a time. Occasionally, it’s almost convincing: For a 16-year-old, Bieber is surprisingly charismatic, and the film does an admirable job of portraying the pure, distilled joy of teenagers in the presence of their idol without resorting to mockery. However, the film’s premise—that Bieber achieved his superstardom through years of hard work overcoming towering obstacles—is so ludicrously flawed that everything built upon it borders on self-parody.

As if Never Say Never’s “reach for the stars” narrative wasn’t telegraphed loudly enough by its title, it becomes deafeningly clear in the first 10 minutes, which intercuts home-video footage of Baby Bieber singing and banging on a tiny drum set with dynamic, 3D footage of his sold-out MSG show. Interviews with Bieber’s mother, manager, vocal coach, and dozens of ecstatic, braces-wearing fans reiterate again and again how talented and hardworking and cute Bieber is, and footage of him pulling his giant tour bus into his small Ontario hometown to spend a day hanging with his old friends and sleeping in his childhood bed is calibrated to achieve maximum “awwww.” It’s the sort of sanctification that should be familiar to anyone who’s lived through a teen-idol supremacy, but it crosses into parody when discussion turns toward Bieber’s discovery by manager Scooter Braun in 2008.

Braun characterizes his nurturing of Bieber’s career as a major gamble, and his protégé’s success as a grassroots movement, succeeding outside the Disney/Nickelodeon machine—never mind that Bieber had the combined powers of R&B star Usher and record impresario Antonio “L.A.” Reid backing his career. A few months spent doing radio-station gigs is represented as the height of road-warrior determination, and Bieber’s (admittedly endearing) interactions with fans in person and on Twitter are depicted as saintly acts of graciousness. There’s nothing wrong with achieving fame quickly, but portraying an 18-month career as a long, arduous struggle for success is laughable and borderline-offensive.

Although he’s in nearly every frame, Bieber is an elusive figure in the movie: He happily mugs for the camera, notably in a hilarious moment where he flips his signature hair-swoop in glorious slow-motion 3D to the strains of Etta James’ “At Last.” But he never engages with it, leaving his various handlers to craft his legend. Passing mention is given to the alienation and pressure inherent in teen-idoldom, but it comes via an interview with Miley Cyrus, and quickly segues into glossy footage of them dueting onstage. There’s no room for reflection when there’s 3D concert footage to get to, and director Jon Chu brings the same lively camerawork to the MSG performance as he did to the similarly pretty-but-vacant Step Up 3D. But like its 3D sequences, Never Say Never has only the illusion of depth; beyond the shiny visuals and trumped-up origin story, there’s nothing but flat emptiness.