One Direction: This Is an exercise in blandness

One Direction“IT’S COMING ON!” yelped the five year-old sitting in front of me as the lights went down. I hunkered down into my seat and made ready. Suffice it to say I’m not a One Direction fan insomuch as I recognise one song offhand; suffice it to further say that This Is Us (in 3D!) is not catered to my tastes. No matter. Their fans will get everything they want out of this concert film while the rest of us won’t be converted any time soon.

It’s safe. Very, very safe. The film feels more like propaganda concocted by business executives in a roundtable discussion with pie charts and demographics; the sort of propaganda that conveniently irons out the stresses and tolls of a ten month international tour in order to perpetuate the five boys squeaky-clean image. The result is a rather implausible depiction of five banterous lads having a whale of a time all. the. time. Over a hundred shows in over twenty countries and they don’t even so much as raise their voices at each other?

There’s none of the fly-on-the-wall, warts-and-all honesty present in, say, The Beatles’ Let It Be, nor is there any evidence of the band’s creative influence coming to the fore as in, say, A Hard Day’s Night. These Beatles comparisons aren’t accidental, by the way. The film seldom stops comparing them, registering the Direction phenomenon as achieving worldwide recognition faster even than the Fab Four managed. The film rather humorously neglects to mention the main reason for this speed: social media.

More humorous still are the assertions by Alexis Petridis and Michael Williams (writer and editor for The Guardian and NME respectively) that the band have “an edge”; that they sound “a little dangerous”. As The Clash would say, cut the crap. Let’s face it: they’re just another impeccably-produced, manufactured, corporately-controlled pop band. Though there certainly are some scenes with screaming fans akin to Beatlemania, they’re more Jonas Brothers than Sgt. Pepper.

Perhaps the strangest thing about This is Us is Morgan Spurlock’s attachment to the project. His previous films, most notably Supersize Me, can be characterised by a subversive element of anti-establishment sabre-rattling. From this illustrious track record we might be lead to assume that This is Us presents a darker, less glittery side to a ten-month-long, globe-trotting tour. Prepare to be be disappointed – This is Us is about as subversive as toilet roll, packing about as much analytical punch as a mewling kitten.

Spurlock is conspicuous in his total silence, effectively reduced to the role of a cameraman mutely conducting banal interviews. His prior filmography seems to have had no bearing on his assignment to the director’s chair, so what is he doing here? Perhaps he was the only one able to pull enough strings to get Martin Scorsese and Chris Rock backstage in a pair of surprising cameos. I can only assume he was calling in some favours.

The only moments where his influence becomes palpable are in the quick-cut edits at the start of the film and a scene where a neuroscientist discusses the dopamine-fuelled cortical functions of the average teenage fan’s brain. Such moments feel out-of-sorts, as if Spurlock is trying to break into his own film – the rest is rote, by-the-numbers shots of behind-the-scenes shenanigans, talking heads expounding at length about the band’s meteoric rise to fame and, lest we forget, endless hordes of screaming fangirls.

The band’s appearance at Madison Square Garden had me fondly remembering the gloriously self-indulgent weirdness of the fantasy sequences in Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. Unfortunately there’s no swords-and-sorcery or drag-racing here; in fact, there’s nothing to individually distinguish any of the five band members at all beyond some rather stock declarations attesting to Zayn’s “niceness” or Harry being “the ultimate popstar”. They all seem like perfectly nice young lads but that’s all they ever seem like since their personalities are so interchangeable and ill-defined. It only lends credence to the idea of One Direction as a mechanised brand with microphones and hair stylists.

The concert scenes of the band performing are certainly adequate enough and the 3D effects are admittedly quite impressive. The performances themselves are fine, relying on the band’s natural ability to carry a set rather than a reliance on complicated choreography. There’s nothing groundbreaking here but it gets the job done.

And so it goes with This Is Us as a whole. It’s bland, safe and completely harmless, with all the interesting bits trimmed out. It feels like a committee-approved commission, helmed by a talented documentary director with executively-greased palms and no apparent interest in his subject. As vanity projects go it’s not as woefully dire as Glitter, not as self-assuredly swaggering as The Song Remains the Same or as ennui-inducing as Meeting People is Easy but it’s so tepidly inoffensive the question must be raised: Why even bother (profit aside)? As a concert film it succeeds. In every other respect it sits there, twiddles its thumbs and looks bored. If you’re a fan, your reaction should be a foregone conclusion. For everyone else, there’s nothing here to sway you either way.