1D's "This" is Sweet as a First Crush

I know what you’re thinking. One Direction, the Anglo-Irish boy band, is a joke—a corporate hoax cooked up by Simon Cowell and his X Factor henchman to extract money from gullible, lovesick girls and their luckless parents. Bet you also think that former firebrand Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) has gone over to the dark side, selling his soul to TriStar/Sony Pictures to make One Direction: This Is Us, a 3-D concert documentary that some consider the musical equivalent of eating your weight in Big Macs. End times are upon us.

Whew. Now that we have that out of the way, let me simply say I have seen the future of pop music at my local multiplex, and—for at least the next few weeks—their names are Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson.

As This Is Us makes plain, One Direction’s charisma is considerable; the boys’ talent, fledgling but real; and their fans’ happy, high-pitched devotion, audible from space. To loosely paraphrase Dr. Stefan Koelsch, the German neurologist whom Spurlock quizzes about the band’s appeal, One Direction, or more endearingly called 1D, is like a musical form of dopamine. They look and sound the way a first crush feels.

Spurlock, whose sense of mischief is a good match for the band’s, has made the right movie at the right time. No one will mistake This Is Us for a Frontline report, and Spurlock has acknowledged he had to broker the final cut with the film’s producers, including Cowell. Yet like A Hard Day’s Night before it, his film is a funny valentine that celebrates the band’s youth, good looks, and cheeky high spirits (tour manager Paul Higgins, who has the unlucky task of policing 1D’s golf-cart joyrides and other backstage antics, calls them “a bunch of pranksters”). It also manages to pose some wistful, if whispered, questions about the costs of their colossal fame.

Spurlock signals just how sudden that fame was from the very start of This Is Us, which opens with a flip-book montage of 1D members as youngsters, then jump-cuts to the band taking the stage at the start of a sold-out world tour that will slingshot them around Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. Shortly before 1D’s concert at Madison Square Garden, Spurlock films Liam and Niall, sitting dazed and alone in the stands, looking scarcely old enough to attend a concert, much less headline one. “This is us?” their slightly panicked expressions seem to say.

While the Beatles had a couple of off-the-radar years in Hamburg and Liverpool to find their sound and hone their act, One Direction had just a few, very public months during the 2010 season of Britain’s The X Factor to do likewise. Cowell is on hand to describe how the band members auditioned as solo performers, became a group at the behest of the show’s producers, and eventually signed with his record label, Syco.

Their galvanic impact on teenage girls was clear from the start, says Cowell, and they “made it their mission that One Direction was going to be the biggest group in the world.” Faster than you can say Facebook and Twitter, word of 1D spread through Europe and the US, “and we didn’t even have a record out yet,” Cowell marvels, the dollar signs all but popping out of his eyeballs. Their first single, the megahit “What Makes You Beautiful,” sealed the deal, and was swiftly followed by two chart-topping albums, filled with bona-fide pop pleasures like “One Thing” and “Kiss You.”

Girl power is a big part of the 1D story: their power as social-media marketers, their buying power, and, most certainly, their lung power, whether they’re singing along at concerts or screaming for joy outside the bands’ hotel rooms. (“This is why we have the best fans in the world,” Niall beams, as he throws open his hotel window and leans out; ear-splitting ecstasy ensues.) I’m with Dr. Koelsch on this one when he says that 1D’s fans “aren’t crazy; they’re excited,” although that excitement can boil over. In Amsterdam, fans chase 1D through the streets, and the boys find themselves literally trapped by their fame inside a Nike store.

If their world tour is, as one band member puts it, “a big lad’s holiday,” Spurlock lets us know this is one hard-working vacation. Besides performing more than 120 concerts in two dozen countries, the band films videos and ad campaigns, gives press conferences, and begins recording their third album, due out in 2014. Watching writer-producer Julian Bunetta roust a bleary Zayn out of his tour-bus bunk to record a bridge for “Best Song Ever” calls up memories of Louis B. Mayer skirting child labor laws at MGM.

What there isn’t much time for is family. Spurlock’s most poignant interviews are with the boys’ parents, who, while enormously proud of their sons’ success, have been all but orphaned in the process. “He went to an audition, and never came home” is how Harry’s stepfather, Robin Twist, puts it. Adds Liam’s dad, Geoff Payne, “That time has gone, and I’ve missed it.” In a scene that feels both invasive and total lump-in-your-throat moving, Spurlock films Zayn’s mother, Tricia Malik, touring the new house he has bought for her, and then calling halfway around the world to thank him. “This is the best thing about what we’re doing,” Zayn tells Spurlock. “It’s why I auditioned for [The X Factor], to be able to give back to my mom.”

Sterner critics may scoff at This Is Us, and gripe that Spurlock steers well clear of any sex, drugs, or drink (as did A Hard Day’s Night). Those are stories for another day, and a different film. Like a One Direction song, what Spurlock gives us may be idealized, but it’s also joyful. And really, that’s what makes 1D beautiful.

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