It might be hard for some people to understand just how successful Justin Bieber, who once seemed primed to founder on the shores of child-celebrity maturation, continues to be. The 27-year-old is one of the best-selling artists of all time (150 million albums sold worldwide and counting), and continues to dominate pop music on a level undreamt of by most. His most recent release, this year’s Justice, debuted at No. 1 and produced a hit single with “Peaches.” His 2020 album Changes made him the youngest artist to have seven No. 1 albums on the Billboard charts, breaking a record formerly held by Elvis Presley. No matter what else you may think of him, the guy moves units to an absurd degree. Put it this way: He’s sold more albums than ABBA, Jay-Z, or Bruce Springsteen, and he’s only been at it for little more than a decade. The dude is a machine.
He’s also a grown man now, as the new concert film/backstage documentary Justin Bieber: Our World works overtime to remind you. We get numerous shots of him at home with his wife, Hailey Baldwin, and seemingly endless clips of family, friends, and employees talking about what a selfless, noble soul he is—so gifted and thoughtful at the same time, Jesus Christ may as well be a bag of garbage. Bieber’s previous docs, Never Say Never and Justin Bieber’s Believe, were appallingly shameless slices of carefully PR-managed propaganda, the former so carefully molded to create a rags-to-messiah image, it didn’t even allow its own subject to address the camera.
This one might have a looser feel, but it’s no less manipulated and stage-managed for its COVID-hook elements or “authentic” home-video footage of Bieber himself filming little moments of his day-to-day routine. If anything, the movie doubles down on fidelity to the idea of Justin Bieber as an artist who can do no wrong. And to be fair, when we’re watching the concert footage of a talented performer cutting loose after several years away from the job, that’s a more plausible claim; as with Believe, the over-the-top spectacle of the live show is the real star of this film. But nearly every other element can trigger the gag reflex. Bieber’s interview segments may by nothing but expressions of gratitude for his charmed life and proclamations of commitment to loved ones, but they all come across like carefully orchestrated variations of “Isn’t he just the greatest guy ever?”
As with any media covering a span of time during the past 18 months, COVID-19 is an unwelcome costar. Due to quarantine restrictions, Bieber’s planned New Year’s Eve livestream concert was relocated to the roof of the Beverly Hilton, where a small, socially distanced audience watched from nearby hotel rooms as it was broadcast to 150 countries. The documentary element of the movie adopts a ticking-clock structure, as the star’s team of musicians and choreographers, along with a large production crew, have 30 days to build and execute a massive arena-style concert from scratch, all while under the necessity of strict safety procedures including masking and daily tests.
The movie makes a big deal out of the group’s public commitment to those safety measures; as one crew member solemnly intones early on, “If even one major player gets it, the show is over.” That claim turns out to be a bit disingenuous, since choreographer Nick Demoura—a key player in the show by any metric—gets coronavirus with 21 days left. Needless to say, the show goes on, and Demoura returns after his designated quarantine time. Similarly, it’s a bit odd to see everyone masked and preaching fidelity to it, save for Bieber himself, who blithely goes about his days unmasked and in close contact with everyone else, making the whole “safety first” angle of the story a bit farcical (especially since, to date, the singer hasn’t reported getting vaccinated).
But if you set aside the behind-the-scenes encomiums to Bieber’s greatness (methodically intercut with his own earnest statements of humble gratefulness, of course), the stage show itself is a thing to behold. Like Believe helmer John Chu before him, director Michael D. Ratner knows how to frame shots for maximal shock and awe, with the laser light show, pyrotechnics, and fantastic backup dancers (especially them) providing eye-popping visual accompaniment as the singer runs through a laundry list of hits like “All Around Me,” “Forever,” “Love Yourself,” and more. It’s a reminder that there’s a reason for this film to exist beyond the hackneyed interview footage—when you’ve got the best production team money can buy, you get one hell of a show.
But this sense of sanitized gloss running throughout it means that Justin Bieber: Our World likely won’t change any minds one way or the other. Beliebers will see a snazzy and engaging performance from an artist they like, peppered liberally with doubtless well-intentioned depictions of his modesty and professionalism. Those who aren’t fans of his music to begin with may respect the stagecraft of his producers more than the artist himself, or be turned off altogether by the clumsy hagiography. In other words, this is a for-the-fans endeavor—no one else will want to get near Bieber here, especially since he’s unmasked.