Movie review: ‘One Direction’ goes wrong way for director Spurlock

Film tries for more but ends up trite.

FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAMAugust 29, 2013 

1184625 - ONE DIRECTION

One Direction: Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan and Liam Payne, with Morgan Spurlock.

  • ONE DIRECTION: THIS IS US

    •1/2

    Rated: PG for mild language. Starring: Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik. Director: Morgan Spurlock. Running time: 92 minutes. Theaters: Playing in 2D and 3D at Edwards 22 and Edwards 9 in Boise, Edwards 14 and Edwards 12 in Nampa, Majestic 18 in Meridian.

Time to christen a new kind of movie: popaganda.

That’s the genre that has risen up in the past five years to lionize young pop stars at the height of their fame. (And, yes, cynically: These films are also designed to cash in on fans’ thirst for anything and everything related to the latest group to capture hearts.) From Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers to Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, the conceit of taking fans “behind the scenes” to give them a flavor of the hectic life of global pop stars has become a rite of passage for every young performer in the music business.

The latest sleek salvo of pop-star mythmaking is director Morgan Spurlock’s “One Direction: This Is Us.”

Presented like nearly every other popagandistic piece in the past few years, it arrives in 3-D, so the screaming young women can try to grasp the objects of their desire, only to have them slip through their fingers.

The documentary tracks the five young members of One Direction — Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson — as the group begins its whirlwind journey around the globe on its 2012 tour, promoting its sophomore album, “Take Me Home.”

Spurlock intercuts sequences explaining how One Direction formed — briefly, pop Svengali Simon Cowell had a flash of inspiration when the five teens tried out separately for the British “X Factor” in 2010, heard how well their voices blended and the rest is history — and returns to each member’s humble hometown to provide context for the archetypes (Zayn’s the quiet one, Harry is the scamp, Louis is the pin-up, etc.).

Where Spurlock’s film sets itself apart from the tropes is in his exploration, however brief, of the impact this meteoric rise to fame has on the families of the young men.

It’s not a subject often addressed, largely because it treads into uncomfortable territory — are adults, namely Cowell, exploiting these kids? — but also, the sight of parents weeping over lost time with their children doesn’t lend itself to a feel-good film.

Although, it must be noted, Spurlock strikes a discordant note near the end of “This Is Us,” staging a sequence where Zayn’s mother and siblings arrive at a home he has purchased for them. The episode feels hollow and deliberately designed to stoke sympathy for Zayn.

In a film where Spurlock mostly avoids canonizing his subjects, it’s the one time he stumbles significantly. Nevertheless, credit to Spurlock for not shying away from this and other very real aspects of explosive fame — it can’t all be sold-out arenas, screaming fans and millions fattening corporate coffers.

Elsewhere, “This Is Us” plops viewers in the midst of a One Direction concert, complete with warm smiles, sensitive acoustic ballads and up-tempo pop bubblegum.

The litmus test for this and other popaganda films is how well they convey the subject’s popularity to an audience that may not have much familiarity with the pop-culture mainstream.

On that score, “One Direction: This Is Us” does an excellent job showcasing the five young lads at the center of all that hormonal chaos — and while Cowell and company would clearly like to evoke another pretty popular British mop-topped foursome (the Beatles are namechecked a couple times), One Direction is stirring up a madness all its own.

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