Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat. Jon Chu's JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER will not cure disease. It's a bit long (there's a saggy middle section that could have been whipped into better shape) and the central conceit - a build-up to the tween heart-throb's big concert at Madison Square Garden - is, as they say, paper-thin.
Further, most music docs have the benefit of an artist's long history to reflect on, a career and personal arc that includes the ups and downs of year's of hard touring and music biz shenanigans. Halfway through NEVER, I came to the abrupt realization that Justin Bieber's entire career has been shorter than production on my current film.
That said, NEVER SAY NEVER, which had its major film festival debut here at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK after a hugely successful stateside theatrical release (#4 all time), is a film that announces early on that it intends to be much, much better than it has to be. And by the end, the film delivers so many moments of pure, giddy joy that most of the docmakers who saw it (including more than a few repeat viewers) were bouncing through the streets of Sheffield for hours afterward.
I say most, but I did not say all. At least a couple seemed to view the film with hostility and there were a number of others I spoke to later in the evening who openly scoffed at the film. Indeed, check the film's IMDb page and you will see a string of 1-star reviews from folks who hate NEVER SAY NEVER, hate Justin, hate the screaming girls who love him so much.
So why did I and a number of others (who have not, as far as I can tell, taken leave of their senses) fall for this 3-D ode to a 16 year old whose music I did not recognize (nor did I find it particularly catchy)?
In setting the background of this larger story about culture and social-media influence, Chu zeroes in on a series of homemade videos (posted to YouTube) made of Bieber in his native Canada, for here begins the Bieber legend (news to me but no doubt gospel to his millions of fans: the videos are discovered by a twenty-something music exec in Atlanta named Scooter Braun, who convinces Bieber's skeptical mother to come to Georgia and pursue a music career.
The film isn't an investiagtive piece: it downplays the current corporate supprt of Island Records to concentrate on Braun (who, along with Bieber, is a producer on the film), and the ragtag group of grown-up, 20-something lost boys, all filling the father/older brother/uncle role that Bieber clearly needs. It completely omits the fact that one of the things that worried Bieber's mom the most about signing with Braun was because he is Jewish (while Bieber's Christian faith is on display in the film, it's less forward than has been portrayed in other venues). Religious conflicts and big money backers have no place in the world of NEVER.
So, why take it seriously? Because Chu has made a serious film, one that adheres and honors the basic tenants of the rock doc. The concert that anchors the film is shot purposefully, without the kind of constantly moving crane-work that has sadly come to define the current MTV-inspired look. Chu leaves the kinetic energy to his editor, who cut the film vibrantly and with an incredibly sure hand. Meanwhile, Chu takes great delight in tackling the film's big, glitzy add-on, 3-D camera work, with something approaching gleeful, playful abandon.
3-D, Chu and Bieber seem to be admitting, is the ultimate toy. And if we've got it, why not use it in the most preposterous ways possible. So a film that is not fully 3-D, uses the technology in key, often delicious, moments. While some are to be expected: concert shots where Bieber reaches out to the audience or throws his hat toward the camera, most are absurdities: a 3-D montage of Justin's preparations that features a 3-D shot of his clothes being steamed, of Justin reaching for his shoes, taking mints from a jar.
The most extreme is a bravura piece of filmmaking, worthy of cult filmmakers everywhere, where Chu, in slow motion, dollies in on a 3-D Justin, who makes eyes with the camera and proceeds to toss around his hair, all set to the tune of Etta James' "At Last". If there's a list of the 5 iconic moments in nonfiction in the 2010s, surely this is one of them.
Chu also uses the technology to make his background theme, the ways in which social media created and sustain Bieber's career, more vivid. Justin's tweets (and those of his many followers) pop off the screen, as do the videos of the fans who have covered his songs. It's an inventive use of the technology, one that is as purposeful as most of the rest of the 3-D is purposefully ridiculous.
While I didn't leave NEVER SAY NEVER like a tween-age girl, ready to scoop up whatever he's going to do next (I'll save that for Timberlake and Rhianna), I was grinning from ear to ear from seeing a strong music doc with potential cult-like appeal for its 3-D whimsy. If I also left feeling like Bieber was truly talented (even if I don't love his music) and not some Disney Channel creation, well, all the better.
But, most of all, I thought there was a reason that NEVER SAY NEVER is the number four nonfiction film of all time. It's a really good, near-great film experience. And how many docs can you say that about?
Haters begone. The BIEBER Doc rules. Kudos to Sheffield for giving it the respect it deserves.