Once one reaches a certain age, the procession of teen pop idols becomes a cruel reminder of the passage of time and the inevitability of death. For any non-teenager attending Morgan Spurlock’s concert documentary “One Direction: This Is Us,” intimations of mortality will be felt most strongly during the “classic cover song” section of the group’s set, wherein the boy band reaches all the way back to Blondie’s “One Way or Another” and Wheatus’ 2000 golden oldie “Teenage Dirtbag.” Yet the film’s central fivesome prove charming pallbearers throughout the film, which alternates between inspired and insipid as it hits its hagiographic marks. Directioners should show up in full force.
One Direction is, needless to say, an extraordinarily successful English/Irish quintet assembled from the outcasts of a 2010 “X Factor” audition. “X Factor” overlord Simon Cowell noticed the fivesome among the aspirants, and wondered if perhaps assembling an entire group of attractive teenage male singers might prove a winning business model. It was a gamble, to be sure, but once tethered together, One Direction ended up finishing in third place and immediately signed to Cowell’s Syco Records label, where they quickly evolved into a worldwide sensation, becoming the first British act to top the U.S. album charts with a debut album.
One Direction is hardly the first pop group to have its every formative step stage-managed by TV crews, yet it’s certainly the first to go on to attain this level of success. How the group developed post-“X Factor” would seem a fertile topic for a media-savvy documentarian like Spurlock — particularly as One Direction’s underlying sense of irony seems anathema to Cowell’s rigidly straight-laced model of pop stardom — yet the director generally plays things straight, interspersing live footage of the boys at London’s O2 Arena with behind-the-scenes shenanigans from their globe-hopping 2012-13 tour.
While it lacks anything approaching insight, the film does contain reams of squealing fans, frequent shirtlessness and cameos from the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Chris Rock, and an endearingly enthusiastic Martin Scorsese, who drops in on the group’s dressing room before a Madison Square Garden show. Although the group is described as “a bit anarchic” by a British critic here, any evidence of paramours or partying has been scrubbed clean from these reels, and the fivesome rarely say anything of much interest. Yet they’re unerringly charming oncamera, and for a generation raised on Justin Bieber’s Twitter musings, hearing the heavily accented Liam Payne describe the group “proper having a full-on strop” must seem thrillingly exotic.
It helps that the group has a charisma machine in mop-topped breakout heartthrob Harry Styles. Displaying the sort of smirking insinuation one rarely sees from teen idols, Styles seems to have spent months studying vintage Mick Jagger interview footage, and supplies most of the film’s bon mots while lounging in bed or gazing half-disinterestedly into the distance. Once his onstage demeanor grows to encompass his offstage insouciance, he could be a monster.
While Styles is the most camera-friendly of the group, it’s hard not to notice that Zayn Malik seems to handle nearly all the most demanding vocal parts in concert, while also getting the least amount of face time amid the backstage hijinks. A retiring, heavily tattooed practicing Muslim who pursues graffiti art in his spare time, Malik gradually emerges as the most intriguing subject of the five, as well as the most underserved by the film’s function as a purely promotional product.
Spurlock does occasionally endeavor to break up the film’s more formulaic paces. At times, he’ll introduce unexpected digressions, such as a sudden cut from concert footage to a neuroscientist explaining the ways music affects dopamine levels in the brain. At others, he attempts a sort of Richard Lester-style hyperreality, effectively interviewing band members by having them ask one another canned junket-style questions, and staging some hit-or-miss high-concept sketches. (To be fair, it’s possible that these lads really do go camping together in the middle of Sweden during their off-hours, and gather around the bonfire at night to discuss whether they’ll still be mates once the band has run its course. But surely they would normally sit around the fire, rather than crammed together in a camera-facing semi-circle.)
As for the concert, the performance footage is quite well shot and ably tarted up with some eye-catching 3D bells and whistles. Unique among teen idols in their disdain for dancing, One Direction actually puts on a relatively no-frills live show, singing without any overly obvious backing tracks and supported by a modest four-piece band. Songs — especially those composed by the troika of Carl Falk, Rami Yacoub and Savan Kotecha — are incontrovertibly catchy, and blessed with a bit more of a rockist edge than One Direction’s more recent antecedents ever attempted.