'One Direction: This Is Us': Spurlock's latest offers snap and pizzazz
By Kate Erbland, Special to MSN Movies
Yes, Zayn Malik ("the mysterious one") may be in a boy band, but he's still in "a cool boy band." At least, that's what he tells us early on in Morgan Spurlock's "One Direction: This Is Us," the documentarian's latest film, which focuses on the world's biggest pop sensation and their meteoric rise to fame (and their attempts to stay cool, choreographed dance routines and matching outfits be damned). Created by super-producer Simon Cowell during the seventh season of the British version of the popular singing competition show "The X Factor," the boys of One Direction (or 1D, if you're feeling familiar) didn't win the reality show, but they did manage to grab something much more essential: a rabid fan base desperate for more.
It's the fans who will undoubtedly adore "One Direction: This Is Us," if only because it contains dozens of shots of the lads (including Malik, Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne and Niall Horan) cavorting around in their skivvies and hamming wildly for the camera. Part documentary, part live concert film, "This Is Us" also spends plenty of time with its lens trained on screaming, crying, hysterical fans at the group's many shows and appearances. Cowell and the lads know how important the fans have been to the group's success, and the film's focus on so many of them doesn't seem to just be lip service. The 1D boys care, but the fans really care.
The film is certainly accessible to a wide audience, but that doesn't mean that it's necessarily engaging to anyone not already a fan of the group. That's entirely on Spurlock, though, because the 1D boys seem like funny enough and sweet enough lads who still have their heads screwed on straight -- he just doesn't do much with them. The film doesn't contain any great insights into what it means to be a pop star in the modern world, and some of the biggest takeaways from "One Direction: This Is Us" are the same ones that a similar boy band could have ticked off a decade or more ago: Our fans are the greatest, we love each other and feel like brothers, our shows are fun for everyone, being famous is weird.
Spurlock's trademark style, including quirky graphics and overlapping narratives, works well for both his subjects and the 3-D medium. The 1D boys pop off the screen, accompanied by text of their lyrics and zooming illustrations from their shows, making the many concert-focused sections of the film truly sing (and even dance a little, though the group members make it clear they hate dancing with a passion).
Yet, for all its stylistic snap and pizzazz, "One Direction: This Is Us" is at its very best when focused on something far more simple: the boys' families, all of whom seem equal parts baffled and extremely proud of their sons' success. But there's a palatable sadness from them, as Styles' stepfather puts it so succinctly: "He went to the 'X Factor' auditions and never came home again." Styles was just 16 at the time, while the rest of the boys ranged in age from 15 to 18. Liam's mom buys a cardboard standee of her son to keep in the house. Zayn's mom calls him, sobbing, to thank him for buying them a new family home. It's genuinely moving and insightful stuff, but Spurlock shoehorns it in only in service to providing a fuller picture of the boys that fans can coo over (often loudly) in the theater.
Kate Erbland is a contributing writer for MSN Movies, a critic for Boxoffice magazine and an associate editor for Film School Rejects. She has been writing about movies since 2008, but has been thinking about movies for far longer. She lives in New York City.