Before I start talking about Justin Bieber, allow me to talk about myself: I'm a 40-year-old Christian media critic. Married. Three kids under the age of 5. I have a mortgage. And I had to sell my motorcycle.
Translation: I am not in Justin Bieber's target demo. And not just a ring or two away from the bull's-eye, either. I'm not even in the same time zone.
I tell you that because going into this concert movie I had exactly the sort of opinion of Justin Bieber that you'd expect from someone who's 40, has a mortgage and three kids under 5: wariness, weariness and weirded-outness. Oh, cynicism, too. And a bit of bewilderment regarding this boy who is merely the latest teen idol to captivate the masses. Step aside Miley Cyrus and Jonas Brothers.
I was more than a little shocked, then, when I realized that this cinematic take on Bieber's improbable rise over the last year or two wasn't torturous to sit through. In fact, director Jon Chu (Step Up 3D) has done something quite remarkable with Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. He's made a 16-year-old singing sensation from Canada (who casually sports more hair than exists on all the males heads of my entire extended family) seem not only down-to-earth, but even inspirational … and likable.
So does that make me a full-fledged Bieber Belieber?
YouTube Made the Internet Star
Concert docs these days tend to have a certain reality-TV self-awareness that's pretty hard to get around. There are only so many ways you can shoot onstage footage—no matter how crazy the show, the screaming fans, the pyrotechnics, the planned and canned 3-D moments. There's only so much mugging for the camera most of us over the age of 22 can take.
Except, of course, if your subject happens to be the first real pop star of the YouTube era. Then the creative palette expands to include the very viral videos that helped propel someone like Justin Bieber to fame in the first place.
And here's the story they tell: Justin's mom, Pattie Mallette, posts videos of him singing pop songs to YouTube so other family members can see them. But something curious happens. More folks than just family and friends find them. Hundreds. Then thousands. Then bazillions of insta-fans discover the adorable boy next door from Stratford, Ontario.
Soon, an enterprising young music producer named Scooter Braun comes calling, convinced Justin embodies that "oh-so-rare" it factor. A bidding war breaks out, and Scooter makes a deal with R&B singer Usher's record label. A buying frenzy sets in. More than 9 million albums fly off shelves and websites. An 86-show arena tour sells out. Some 20 million friends pile up on a Facebook page. More than a billion times, fans cue up a series of increasingly professional-feeling YouTube videos.
But the strength of Chu's directorial effort isn't filling your head with facts and figures, or even concentrating on yet another Cinderella story. It's how he invites crazed fans and curious curmudgeons alike to see Justin not as the larger-than-life teen phenom, but as the regular—if very talented—kid from a little town 150 kilometers west of Toronto.
Thus, we see old videos of Justin, as a toddler, turning anything he can get his hands on into makeshift drumsticks. We see him coming in second at a local American Idol-style singing competition. And we listen as he busks in downtown Stratford.
The Justin Bieber Experience
We also see up-to-the-minute concert footage, backstage business and tour bus antics. And that leads us to this outrageously overworked comparison: The often ferocious fervor Justin whips up in young fans is reminiscent of … The Beatles.
Screaming girls. Screaming girls. And more screaming girls. Did I mention the screaming girls?
"Marry Me," reads one young female's placard. Another tells the camera, "I will be his wife," while yet another wears a shirt that brazenly proclaims, "Madison Bieber." In a recent MTV interview, Justin admitted that the marriage-oriented messages aren't his favorite. "You know what creeped me out?" he said at a Q&A following the movie's New York premiere. "When that girl was like, 'I will be his wife.'"
Creeped out or not, Justin arguably fans the flames of his fans when he and his highly polished R&B retinue march through such teen puppy love anthems as "Baby" and "Love Me." What else, after all, is a 12-year-old girl to think when she hears him coo in his magnetic boyish tenor, "Tell me what I want to hear/Tell me you love me"?
Turns out that's exactly what they want to hear. Cue more screaming. And speaking of fanning the flames, several gratuitous shots of Justin sans shirt seem calculated to stoke the fire even more.
And then, just when moments like those begin to press my cynical and concerned buttons, the movie veers back into inspirational human-interest territory. "Me and the guy from Extreme Home Makeover have the best job in the world," manager Scooter Braun tells us at one point. "We get paid to make people happy." Illustrating the point, a lengthy, heartwarming segment shows the tour crew wading into throngs of people gathered before each show, looking for a few unfortunates who don't have tickets … and then giving them choice seats.
Likewise, there was hardly a dry eye in the theater during a segment showing Justin inviting a lucky young lady onstage to be serenaded with "One Less Lonely Girl." As Justin sang, she could barely restrain her tears at her good fortune. It's an element of the show that could have seemed like a calculated gimmick instead simply seems … genuine.
God's Goodness … and God's Name
The movie also goes out of its way to show that the people around Justin are striving mightily to make sure his story doesn't turn out like that of so many other teen stars before him. Braun says, "Ninety percent of my job is helping him become a good man."
And the camera pauses respectfully as several folks in Justin's entourage pray for him.
But a much more casual use of God's name also gets screen time here. Contrasted with Justin's mom's forthright and sincere expressions of faith is the consistent response of nearly every female fan who sees or meets him. "Oh my god!" they gurgle, gush and shriek over and over and over again.
And it occurs to me that there's a certain irony in that response. Because for many of these girls, Justin seems to have become exactly that: their god. "I think about him, like, 99% of my life," exclaims one. So if worship is ultimately about praising that which we value most deeply, these girls' affections for Justin offers a textbook study in exaltation.
It's more than an academic exercise, though. It's downright dangerous, both for the girls … and for Justin.
Miley, Mentors and the Future
Can Justin survive such adoration? Such frenetic fame? The movie doesn't even begin to ask such uncool questions about the coolest guy around right now. But they're quite relevant to whether families should themselves never say never to Bieber.
Those around him are portrayed as being levelheaded and determined to help him navigate the almost certain pitfalls that lie ahead. But there was a time when that seemed true of Miley Cyrus too. And her brief appearance in this film—singing a duet with Justin—serves as an unwitting cautionary reminder of how hard it is to walk the gauntlet Justin faces and come through it without significant damage. Cameos by Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Sean Kingston and Usher only underscore that concern.
It's the latter's influence I worry about the most. Usher comes across as personable and genuinely concerned for his young lablemate. I have no problem understanding why Justin refers to him as a big brother and a mentor. But I'm also convinced that Justin's proximity to an R&B star of Usher's particular type, whose latest album contains raw references to sex, means those lyrical lessons are going to come along for the ride, too.
It's not fair, though, to end with dour doubts about the future when I began with such pleasant surprise about the present. Because for now at least, whether he's wearing a shirt or not, what Justin Bieber offers his legions of young fans is a relatively wholesome alternative to the racier offerings of many of his teen contemporaries—and most of his adult ones.
Read our Up Front interview with Pattie Mallette, Justin Bieber's mom.