With 'Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,' Jon Chu has cooked up an ultra-slick biopic packed with enough concert moments, awww-inducing baby footage and behind-the-scenes details that even the most Bieber-averse will come away with a newfound respect for the tireless young pop star.
A few weeks ago, New York Times writer and editor Neil Genzlinger wrote a scathing review called "The Problem With Memoirs," suggesting that our memoir-saturated landscape was full of people who were encouraged to share their otherwise unremarkable lives (in his opinion) when they'd do best to either shut up or start a blog. In Genzlinger's opinion, "There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment."
This wasn't a popular editorial, to say the least, especially among writers, and one could cop this attitude towards many biopics out there, if one were so inclined. I myself copped that 'tude towards news of Justin Bieber's biopic last August, writing, "That's right, that Canadian dreamboat who was born in 1994 and isn't even old enough to buy cigarettes? His life story is begging to be told, and soon all your Bieb-tastic questions will be answered ... IN THREE DIMENSIONS."
I was wrong.
'Never Say Never' gives its target audience what it wants -- Tons 'o' Bieb! In 3D! Occasionally shirtless! -- and it also sheds some light on just where the heck this kid came from. That story is, if I might admit it, pretty damn heart-warming and impressive, no matter what you think of his music.
While 'Never Say Never' shies away from the gritty stuff, interviews with his mom Pattie Mallette, his grandparents, his manager Scooter Braun, his voice coach Mama Jan Smith, his security guard Kenny Hamilton and countless others paint a portrait of a musically precocious kid who worked whatever gig they could dig up for him on his way to the big time. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Bieber's rise is his use of social media. Braun found Bieber though YouTube, and even when all the labels slammed the door in their faces because Bieber wasn't fresh from the Disney factory, Braun knew that the chatter on YouTube meant something big. Between that and Twitter, Bieber soon had tons of young fans showing up at his gigs at radio stations or malls or wherever Bieber had Tweeted he'd be. Eventually, the industry caught up to him, and he was signed to Island Def Jam. Even now, a Tweet from Bieber can practically cripple a website.
This story is nicely spliced together with a countdown to Justin Bieber's first show at Madison Square Garden, the ultimate symbol of success to Bieber and Braun. Along the way, the young singer faces exhaustion and throat problems that cause him to delay a few shows in order to save his vocal cords. Ostensibly, the question is whether or not he'll be up to performing at MSG, and this drama is played up for all its worth. It definitely worked on the tween next to me, whom, I swear, wiped away a tear from behind those purple 3D glasses as we watched Bieber get his throat probed by a doctor.
For the most part, though, the talking is left up to the adults. Bieber is everywhere, of course; he's performing, he's hanging with his friends, he's backstage with Jaden Smith (who is identified as a karate expert), he's practicing with Mama Jan or hanging with his grandparents. But for the most part, we don't hear directly from Justin himself. Unlike Scooter and the other adults that make up his tour group, he rarely talks directly to the camera, and we're given little to no insight on what it's like to go from a kid banging on drums with Mom's friends from church to someone filling up Madison Square Garden. There's a scene with his dad who comes to see him perform, but what, exactly, does that mean? Were they estranged? Do they have any relationship at all? We don't know; we just see Dad tearing up at the sight of his baby boy rocking the stadium and then the two goofing off afterwards backstage.
In one scene near the end, when he's having problems with this throat and is frustrated and tired, Justin flops onto his bed on the tour bus and the door is virtually closed on us. Yes, he's a teenager, and he's in a bad mood, but it feels as though certain parameters were set in place before filming began, and most of them involve how Justin interacts with the camera. Normal teenage boy playing hoops with his friends? Okay! Stressed-out pop star having a bit of a tantrum? Not okay! (Maybe this is why Davis Guggenheim disengaged early on in the process?)
The use of 3D concert footage is sort of interesting but seems like a gimmicky cash grab, especially given how many times fans will see the movie. At the same time, it does add to the stadium effect (I saw it in Real 3D). However, 'Never Say Never' achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve and then some; it gives Bieber's fanbase exactly what they want and lots of it, and it even manages to surprise and entertain crotchety adults who would otherwise shudder to think about Bieber.