“Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” is a Necessary, Dazzling Episode in the History of Pop

"Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" is a Necessary, Dazzling Episode in the History of Pop

I feel bad for any critics who had to see the expressly inspirational, spectacularly feel-good pop chronicle “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” in a studio screening room, joined solely by fellow representatives of the press. The proper way to watch this new, knowingly necessary 3D documentary is — as I viewed it — in a multiplex theater full of screaming and cheering purple-clad fans. Most of who were waving glow sticks and singing along during the concert numbers and booing Miley Cyrus and taking flash photos of the screen (presumably to prove they’d been there, as if it were a live event rather than just a filmed and edited replay). Sure, it sounds like a ruckus, but that’s all part of the fun of this sort of zeitgeist experience.

I would say it was like actually being at a Bieber show, but given that the NYC screening I attended seemed filled with girls who’d actually attended the young star’s Madison Square Garden concert seen on screen and could even point to friends spotted in the crowd, that wouldn’t quite be true. But there are aspects of this film that build on what I’d come to understand in recent years with “U2 3D” — that 3D is terrific for making a concert film audience feel like they’re really there — and with Julian Schnabel’s “Berlin” — that concert films ought to bring video backdrop footage into the forefront for a more layered encounter with the space and event depicted.

Of course, those critics who missed the full excitement of witnessing an audience go absolutely insane over each segment of the opening credits (like I hadn’t seen since the opening of “The Phantom Menace”), the slow-motion hair flips and, craziest of all, each moment of shirtlessness, they got to better contemplate “Never Say Never” as a film. As such, though, it’s pretty basic. Yes, it is quite calculated and remarkably, at times humorously self-aware in its layout of the legend of Bieber Fever: the prodigious drummer, singer and songwriter discovered on YouTube, built up through Twitter and overall remembered as the epitome of the social-networking Dream. The enthusiastic, angelic boy from a broken home who now brings other families closer together through the joys of bubblegum music and safe, wholesome concerts. But obviously it is familiar. Isn’t that a rule of pop?

In fact, I was quite amazed at how specifically similar “Never Say Never” is to Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter’s 1962 verite music documentary about then-teen idol Paul Anka, “Lonely Boy.” They’re both about young Canadian pop stars, both intercut performance with backstage material, including genuinely forthcoming interviews with their management, and both feature plenty of screaming and crying fans confessing what they (superficially) love so much about the kid. I couldn’t believe it when it turned out Bieber has a tradition of bringing a girl on stage for him to croon “One Less Lonely Girl” to, akin to Anka’s personal serenade of “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” to his own lucky fan.

Okay, so that’s apparently common for pop stars to do. And, besides the nationality and the coincidence of each having songs with “lonely” in the title, Anka and Bieber are merely two peas in a continued pod of similar sort of superstardom, of which there have been many before and many between them. And there will be many afterward. Girls, don’t yet worry that Bieber may one day start balding like Anka has, fifty years after his own film debuted. Don’t pay any notice that Anka has attended a Bieber concert, with his family, and seems therefore to be literally passing a torch. Just go back to not knowing who he is and enjoy your own generational icon while you have him and he has you. Everyone else, appreciate the cyclicality of it all.

One thing I must point out, however, in comparing “Never Say Never” to “Lonely Boy” is where they differ. In his film, Anka is a lot more open and candid, particularly about his extreme weight loss and plastic surgery gone through to keep up his physical appeal, and he even tries to smartly comment on the phenomenon of the fandom, namely the screaming girl part. Bieber, on the other hand, does not speak much, especially not of himself or his fame. Most of his story and personality we get through interviews with his real and professional family as well as an interesting, likely unintentional contrasting of Bieber against guest-performer Jaden Smith. Perhaps Bieber’s lack of openness it’s that he’s much younger. Maybe it’s a choice by his handlers to keep him quieter, not just during the literal orders when his throat is ailing but also for the sake of image and mythmaking. But I do want to believe he’s really just a good, innocent and relatively humble little boy, and so I will, for now, partly because his fans will surely defend him as such to me anyway. And again, they deserve that pure idol of their time.

One of two major criticisms I’ve seen of “Never Say Never” is that it’s just a cash grab by Paramount, in its entirety an exploitation of Bieber’s fans. I can see how that is believed, but at the same time it is also simply a part of pop fandom. It’s more about supply and demand than cheap merchandising, because young fans need things and memories to horde. The audience I saw the movie with paid a whopping $30 a piece to see the film early, and those I heard from said it’s completely worth it (the money also got them the glow sticks, special purple 3D glasses and other souvenirs, too). Sitting with my fiancée, an admitted New Kids on the Block junkie in her youth, I wondered about things I was obsessed with as a preteen (in a way, a comic book movie to me then would be like this is to Bieber’s fans now). And I certainly felt bad for NKOTB fans that they never had a 3D concert film to enjoy. After seeing how excited the audience at the theater was, I hope my kids get to have a technologically spectacular film experience tied to whatever they’re fanatics over.

The other criticism I notice is the claim that there is no good use of the 3D. But that’s not at all true. As with “U2 3D” and other 3D concert films since, the depth is excellent for experiencing the spatiality of the stage scenes. And going above and beyond “Berlin,” here the supplementary video stuff, some showcasing Bieber’s younger days shot on home video, others featuring fans in YouTube response clips, is used cleverly to seem as if they’re floating around the arena and are included in neat mosaic creations. I don’t know; if these things can’t be enjoyed then 3D isn’t your thing in general. Or you just have a different taste in spectacle. And if the film overall can’t be enjoyed then pop culture and Justin Bieber aren’t your thing, either. But that’s no reason to dismiss that its the thing of, for and to a million other people who will be having a ball with it.

If you are at all curious about the Paul Anka film, “Lonely Boy,” you can see the full 27-minute documentary on YouTube, in segments, beginning with Part 1 below:

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