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Entries in Justin Bieber: Never Say Never [2011] (1)

Tuesday
Feb152011

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)

No Concert for Old Men

I haven’t felt as awkward walking into a movie theatre as I did on Sunday morning.  Un-showered, with a scraggly beard and wearing a black pea coat covered in cat fur, I sheepishly asked the girl at the box office for one ticket to see Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.

It’s likely no one in the lobby or at the concession stand knew what I was there to see; how could they?  But the auditorium full of giddy girls, a few scattered boys, and their parents guided me through my walk of shame as I trudged up the steps to the furthest seat in the top row.  Settling in, I was assaulted by the Pre-Show Entertainment playing at full volume.  Something was wrong, though: The picture skipped around, occasionally playing commercials at half speed; the audio sounded like someone spinning the radio dial inside Charles Manson’s head.

The mothers whined loudly that the situation was bullshit, and that everyone should get a free 3D upgrade (none of them had gotten up to complain, mind you, and this was fifteen minutes before showtime).

Unable to concentrate on anything except a mental loop of the word “Gitmo”, I marched out of the theatre and asked the concierge to please have someone inspect the equipment for Theatre 15.  She explained that sometimes the picture and sound for the Pre-Show Entertainment is a bit “off”, but that the movie should be fine.  I asked her to either fix it right away or shut it down completely, and I could tell she was at least a high school diploma away from understanding what my problem was.

I crawled back to my seat amid the sickening strobe lights and warbly blasts of sound, and waited another five minutes before someone showed up in the projection booth to investigate.  The crowd cheered as the previews began, normally, and I wondered at exactly what point one of these heifers would have peeled themselves out of their chairs to complain, had nothing been fixed.

You might wonder why I bothered to stay for the Justin Bieber movie after all that horrifying inconvenience (or you may wonder why you just slogged through that preamble).  Before watching Never Say Never, I didn’t know anything about Justin Bieber, outside of hearing “Baby” on the radio a few times and catching several puff pieces on morning news magazines about his hair (and sometimes his music).  I figured at worst I’d be subjected to a boring, 100-minute taste-assault that would seed a wonderful slam of a review; at best, the taste-assault would be hilarious and I’d get to be scathing anyway.

Once again, I was cosmically punished for making assumptions:

Never Say Never is a really good film.

There’s a caveat, of course, which I’ll get to in a bit; but we need to get something out of the way first:  Bieber is a talented musician who earned his place at the top.

I’ll give you a second to stop rolling your eyes and re-focus on the words.

Okay.

Since yesterday, I’ve talked to a few people about the Bieber Phenomenon, and they assumed—as had I—that the 16-year-old crooner was a former Disney star who’d been plucked from the assembly line and branded for maximum appeal to 12-year-old girls.  Never Say Never dispels that idea immediately, opening with a series of funny YouTube clips of silly cat tricks and a botched wedding ceremony, before settling on home video of a little boy playing the guitar.  He plays well, and he’s got a great, raw voice.

The movie follows this kid from his roots in a broken Ontario home, through his accidental discovery by Georgia talent manager Scooter Braun, to Bieber’s historical 2010 headling show at Madison Square Garden.

We meet Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette, who, as a teen mother, raised her son with the help of her parents.  She’d posted the YouTube videos to show relatives in remote territories how talented her son was; but thanks to the far-reaching powers of the Internet, they were seen by hundreds of thousands of people, including Braun, who insisted that little Justin and his mom visit him for a week to discuss a music career.

A week later, outside a recording studio, Bieber met his pop idol, Usher, who would later become his mentor.  First, though, Bieber and Braun would clash with all the major record labels, who had no idea how to market a talented kid who didn’t have a TV show or other mainstream identity to build off of.  So, with Pattie’s permission, the duo traveled across America, playing in-studio sets for any record station that would have them.  With the advent of Twitter, Bieber was able to get the word out to a growing number of fans as to what city and what station he’d perform at next; eventually, the vans and state fairs led to tour busses and opening for Taylor Swift.

Never Say Never isn’t a concert movie.  It’s a documentary composed of about one-third music.  Sure, it’s aimed at tweens, but it does everything that a good documentary should, depicting real life as entertaining and educational.  As Bieber’s career began to take off, he made a deal with Braun that he would play Madison Square Garden within a year.  The movie shows us how much hard work that feat is for the team of dedicated people surrounding the star; from his bodyguard to his guitar coach to the hundreds of crewmembers who helped the Bieber machine put on over 86 concerts last year.

The film’s hero is Bieber’s vocal coach, Mama Jan Smith.  She’s a friend, teacher, and protector of the singer’s vocal chords.  She also introduces a moment of grim realization late in the story when, after a brief trip home to Ontario to roughhouse with some childhood friends, the singer returns to the tour with swollen chords.  He refuses to upset his fans by rescheduling dates, but Braun and Mama Jan argue that soldiering on may blow not only Madison Square Garden, but also his entire career.  Having longevity, she says, means being responsible enough to look beyond the current whirlwind to a point where he may have to struggle again to be successful.

Of course, Bieber makes the right decision and gets well enough to play the Garden—which comprises the film’s last fifteen minutes.  And what a closer it is.  Director Jon M. Chu, who brought us the last two Step Up films, delivers the slick, glossy movie you’d expect from a Paramount/MTV Films joint, but he absolutely shines in the climax; covering the concert from so many angles that I felt like I was backstage, on-stage and in the audience all at once.  Chu captures the excitement and grandiosity of this grape-bubblegum explosion without shame or irony; this is a kid-friendly movie that may tap into the electricity and wonderment of seeing your first concert.

I’m not here to defend Justin Bieber’s music.  I find some of it catchy and some of it forgettable.  But having watched Never Say Never, I don’t understand why so many people are quick to dismiss him.  Okay, I guess I do understand it, assuming we’re talking about hipsters’ and some adults’ general disdain for any popular music.  And I’ll admit that my favorite moments of Bieber singing were the acoustic versions of his hits, far away from the processing and packaging.  But the kid can actually sing.  And play the guitar.  And the drums.  And the piano.

I can’t write him off because of his popularity, his annoyingly devoted fans, or because his songs don’t have the emotional sophistication of so-called “real music”.  So he sings fluffy, hummable tunes about making girls feel like they’re the one ones for him.  I don’t recall “Crocodile Rock” tearing down the Berlin Wall; nor did “Love Me Do” fill all the empty stomachs in Africa.  But we’ve managed to forgive Elton John and The Beetles, haven’t we?  I’m not saying Justin Bieber will someday produce a White Album, but I’m not saying he won’t, either.

He’s not fully a pop creation like, say Jayden Smith or Miley Cyrus—both of whom show up in Never Say Never as a stark contrast to everything Bieber’s short career stands for.  Smith drops in to rap a duet with Bieber at the Madison Square Garden show.  It’s his first performance in front of an audience, and because he’s Will Smith’s son, he gets to do his talent show shtick at fucking Madison Square Garden.  Worse yet, since the concert took place last summer, right around the time Smith was promoting his lousy Karate Kid remake, the pair are joined on-stage by a cadre of head-band wearing dancers doing martial arts moves.

Next we have Miley Cyrus, looking more and more like she skipped puberty on the way to the Playboy Mansion.  Her duet with Bieber is alright, and I was almost able to ignore her presence in the film (I’m fine with Hannah Montana, but Miley Cyrus can blow me), but then she says this in a cut-away interview (paraphrasing): “I love Justin so much because he’s so sweet and we both had similar struggles in our careers.”  The only struggle I recall Miley Cyrus having in her career was making people forget that her dad was the multi-platinum “artist” behind “Achy Breaky Heart.”  But I digress.

Now we come to the caveat.  I’d be an idiot to believe that everything in Never Say Never is true.  The point of this film is to sell tickets and albums and to extend the career of a millionaire teen idol.  So, of course, if there’s real behind-the-scenes drama, we’re not going to see it.  We won’t get the truth out of Bieber, his mother, his manager or vocal coach for at least a decade, when the big Rolling Stone interview hits stands.  On the other hand, maybe everything presented here is true, or true enough.  Maybe I’m just a slightly more open-minded version of the cynical hipster, looking for dirt among the spotless.

If it comes out that Bieber’s a terror on tour that does lines of cocaine off the backs of rabid pre-teens while perfecting his lip-synching abilities in a broken mirror, I’ll be disappointed and a little surprised.  Jon Chu’s film made me believe in the dream for a couple hours, and as I left the theatre behind groups of teary cheeked girls and a handful of dads shooting each other the “that was actually pretty good” look, I no longer felt filthy and embarrassed.  I was a stupid little kid again with a song in my heart and a rhythm in my step.