One moment sums up the public-image propaganda contained in Justin Bieber’s Believe: In a pre-recorded video transition used in his stage show, Bieber runs through a warehouse pursued by paparazzi in military garb, suggesting the violence with which he’s pursued by photographers. But then he stops for a moment to check himself in a full-length mirror and adjust his hair. Still, Believe doesn’t have as much of the eye-roll-inducing underdog hagiography of Bieber’s first documentary, Never Say Never (brilliantly satirized in Teddy Wayne’s novel The Love Song Of Jonny Valentine). But when it strays from the glitzy pyrotechnics of a Miami concert, it descends into another manipulative PR stunt.
When Believe sticks to the gargantuan sensory overload of the tour production, it’s an engrossing concert experience. Returning director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 3D, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) helms the documentary and serves as the creative director of the tour. Because of that, Believe lingers more on the intricately beautiful choreography and gives a better glimpse of the other performers, but still includes street interviews with members of Bieber’s hopelessly devoted female fan base. Scenes of Bieber collaborating with various producers attempt to pierce the arguments that he’s just another cookie-cutter, manufactured pop singer—and seeing sketches of hit songs come together is a compelling process to watch. (Behind all of the artifice, regardless of taste, Bieber has chops as a musician, especially seated at a drum kit.)
At the one key opportunity for realism to poke through, Chu directly addresses the image concerns of the past year, asking Bieber if he’s aware that his behavior suggests that he could be heading in the same direction as earlier child stars who succumbed to the pressure of growing up famous. Unintentionally, and without much depth, Believe makes the case that because Bieber went through his most formative years touring the world and under the intense scrutiny of the media and adoring fans—shots from inside a car attempting to leave one of Bieber’s concerts is genuinely terrifying—there is no such thing as the “real” Justin Bieber. The singer never engages in any meaningful way with his recent public snafus, rendering the interview here, which supposedly makes up for the absence of one in Never Say Never, utterly meaningless.
When the Believe concert begins, a silhouette of the singer appears on a massive screen, then flaps enormous, angelic wings and soars across the front of the arena to deafening screams. Then, Bieber descends from the rafters attached to giant mechanical wings formed from musical instruments, a deity heading earthward to entertain his flock. On one hand, it’s a sumptuously extravagant image, one of many in a stage show that spares no expense; on the other, it’s yet another self-aggrandizing moment in a film full of yes-men toeing the company line. All the boilerplate aphorisms and blatant attempts at image rehabilitation make Bieber seem like a kind of mega-church preacher leading a long-converted congregation, another huckster dancing around in a white suit.