Can I start with a question? Why shame on a Bieber? The boy’s just trying to do right by his fans, God and the legacy of pop music. Where does all this hostility come from?
Sure, Justin’s obviously untrained vocals may be a little pint-sized and reedy and his dance steps look more often like he’s marking the moves rather than truly executed choreography.
Yes, his songs are bubble gum — not just bubble gum but that super-sugary gum that sticks to your skin if you pop a bubble with it.
Yes, there’s something disconcerting about how his stardom is arguably predicated on the laws of physics that send his long locks into strangely weightless geometric patterns should they catch a breeze.
But this is pop music. Image is everything. And, speaking as someone who rocks “Somebody To Love” on his iPod guilt-free, Justin’s got it nailed.
Bieber’s new concert movie Never Say Never, in which the 10 days leading up to his sell-out show at Madison Square Garden become a race against time as the teen sensation battles the rigors of his concert schedule, acts as both his baptism into permanent ubiquity and his graduation from obscurity.
And I use the word “graduation” somewhat literally. Structurally speaking, Never Say Never is the feature-length equivalent of those videos parents will put together when their child is about to graduate from high school. It’s made up largely of old home videos of Baby Bieb banging away on toy drums, wowing talent show audiences with his Ne-Yo and Chris Brown covers, and generally being a precious little tyke.
Those are intercut with interviews of Bieber’s mother (who I think may be younger than me, and that’s not a very fresh feeling), family, friends and the music industry heads who helped parlay his YouTube stardom into a genuine multimedia youthquake.
All throughout are amped up performances from the MSG show intended as the movie’s climax, with copious cameos from Usher (who really took Bieber under his wing early on), Miley Cyrus and, in one hysterically cagey moment during which one wonders who’s stealing whose thunder, Jaden Smith. (Presumably Willow wasn’t invited because no one but no one whips their hair back and forth on Justin’s stage.)
Never Say Never is no hagiography, more of a hysterio-orgy (of the chaste, promise ring variety) blown up to 3-D and cranked up to 11 for the benefit of those who actually are 11, the demographic too young to realize the chorus of “Love Me” is baldly ripped off from The Cardigans’ “Lovefool,” much less identify the doo-wop undercurrent of “Baby.”
At that level, it accomplishes everything it sets out to do. The audience I screened the movie raised their hands in a heart pattern every time Justin flashed his tween gang sign. They swooned collectively every time a cowlick would fall in his face and he’d return it to its place with a shake of his head. They shrieked with delight during the “One Less Lonely Girl” sequence as girls from various concert audiences were, to their surprise, plucked and invited to receive a bouquet of roses from Justin right up there on the stage.
(One could imagine most of the movie’s target audience loving the movie even if it were 110 minutes of Justin sitting on a bed of spikes and reading from The Satanic Verses. Before the screening, it seemed they were taking turns saying Justin’s name in a crescendo, much like the embarrassing junior high game in which players took turns shouting out a particular portion of anatomy.)
Does the movie pull the curtain back on the man/boy behind the myth/hype? Hardly. It feels more like image maintenance than anything he’s ever done. But it still says more about why he’s famous than his more polished music video performances.
Let’s just say it’s somewhat appropriate this opens the same day Lady Gaga drops her new single “Born This Way.” Just as Lady Gaga was born to be a gay man, Bieber was born to be a likable little brother. His fans don’t root for him because they think he’s the most talented performer of all time. (Well, I hope they don’t think that, lest MJ roll in his grave.) They root for him the same way people root for the most talented member of their own family.
Justin, the jokey kid who leads his entourage in group prayer before every performance, emerges from Never Say Never as an approachable sensation. One with, it must be said, impeccable taste in purple kicks.