Though anyone who needs convincing won’t touch this one with a 10-foot pole, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” makes a persuasive case for its titular star as a far more talented-than-usual teen idol. As much a legitimate documentary as it is a 3D concert film and teen girl squeal-delivery device, the film possesses surprising moments of candor on the toil of teenage superstardom, even if the overall effect is purely promotional. Provided it skirts the curse of the Jonas Brothers (who released a similar film just as their popularity began to flatline), it should go over like gangbusters.
While they ought to be distracted enough by the intimate interview footage (and almost creepily frequent shirtless sequences) of the Biebs on display, fans expecting a straightforward concert pic will likely be confused by the early going. The film starts with what seems a sort of meta-commentary, showing an onscreen email inbox opening up to YouTube clips of laughing babies and Failblog mishaps before finally reminding the audience of the singer’s roots singing in simple, homemade viral clips.
Indeed, Bieber is perhaps the first fully social-media-bred pop star, so it’s no surprise that he should be so easygoing with the film crew here, alternately mugging for director Jon M. Chu and tolerating him as though he were an intrusive, camera-wielding grandparent.
From here, pic intersperses half-song glimpses of Bieber’s headlining stint at Madison Square Garden last year with backstage footage and biographical info, all chaptered by a rolling countdown to the show. Included is his childhood with a single teenage mother in small-town Canada, the emergence of his precocious musical talent and his subsequent quasi-adoptions by both record-label svengali Scooter Braun and superstar mentor Usher.
No doubt, this kid can really sing, and play some decent guitar and drums — as homevideo of the artist as a (somewhat) younger man busking on street corners illustrates — and he’s often disconcertingly adult in his professional demeanor.
Attempts to derive high narrative drama from Bieber’s nagging throat problems on the eve of the big gig are a bit ludicrous, especially considering we’ve been watching selections from said concert throughout. But they do provide an interesting glimpse at the behind-the-scenes machinations of the whole enterprise. They also beg the big question of whether its healthy to consign a 16-year-old kid to a life of such pressures, and a brief invocation of Michael Jackson’s death makes one a bit apprehensive about whether the team in his corner has his best interests in mind.
Pic eventually shows its heavier hand later on, as Braun describes his rather self-aggrandizing habit of teasing ticketless fans outside concert venues before bequeathing them primo comped seats as “giving back,” and the interviews with such fans who can recite Bieber’s birthday down to the minute and day of the week are a little alarming. But at other times, the film (and by association, its star) shows a healthy sense of humor about the Bieber Fever phenomenon, including a hilarious slo-mo sequence of Bieber flipping his famous hair to the strains of Etta James’ “At Last.”
The 3D work is mostly applied to the concert itself, which finally begins to take precedence with a Miley Cyrus duet and reaches a full-on giddy climax with the set-closing “Baby,” the sole song in Bieber’s catalog thus far that seems destined for the archives. Other tech contributions, including the filling-loosening sound mix, are expertly handled.