Netflix has enjoyed a run of good luck with a string of music documentaries in the last year: films about Taylor Swift, Blackpink and J Balvin that, even if they were commissioned by the stars or their management, managed to hit upon fascinating aspects of those artists’ careers at a moment that made for solid storytelling. That streak comes to an end, unfortunately, with “Shawn Mendes: In Wonder,” a film that does little besides create the impression that the 22-year-old superstar has led a charmed life — an assurance that may reassure Mendes’ very youngest fans but won’t draw in anyone not already raptly caught in his spell.
Early in the doc, talking about starting his career in music as a young teen, Mendes reveals, “Nobody for one second looked at me and said, ‘You’re crazy. They all said, ‘Go for it.’” That’s the wrong kind of good omen, or happy-go-lucky portent, for a doc that desperately needs at least a hint of adversity for its subject to overcome. If there has been or is still any such life or career challenge for Mendes, it’s been well hidden from the cameras of Grant Singer, a well-regarded music video director turned firsttime documentarian, whose future prospects in the medium shouldn’t necessarily be judged on how little of interest he was given to work with here.
Singer does find a slight bit of drama to seize on at about the two-thirds point of the film, which, for understandable purposes of having anything at all happen in the movie, he trumps up to the point it becomes nearly comical. Anyone who’s seen the trailer already knows what it is: Mendes’ voice begins to give out before a Brazilian stop on his global stadium tour, leading to the dilemma of whether to cancel or not. The decision over whether or not to cancel a single show on a 106-stop tour is treated as if it’s a transformative crux in Mendes’ life, leading him to pose the question: “If I tell the world that I’m just a normal human, are they going to stop coming to the shows and listening to the music?” Spoiler alert: No, they will not.
With all that said, Mendes does seem like one of the nicest major stars in pop, on top of being easy on both the eyes and ears, qualities that make spending 83 minutes in his company a less difficult task than if it were a still-ripening performer who’d already let fame go to an unattractive head.
But it really is an hour and 23 spent almost exclusively with Mendes, as no other characters really develop during the movie, after we’ve had early glimpses of his family back in Canada and his romance with fellow star Camila Cabello. Manager Andrew Gertler is one of the doc’s executive producers (along with Mendes himself and “Late Late Show” producer Ben Winston), but he seems not to have wanted to be put on camera too much after telling the origin story of Mendes’ discovery. When it comes to the scenes where Mendes is writing and recording songs for his upcoming fourth album, “Wonder,” the film gives the impression that the star does these as a complete auteur, directing the creative process at all times, while his writing or producing collaborators nod along in silent appreciation.
Singer has a sharp visual eye, as you’d expect for a filmmaker who has directed six videos for the Weeknd, among other credits leading up to this debut feature. When Mendes returns home to visit his very normal-seeming nuclear family in a suburb of Toronto, and he runs out to roll around on the grass in a field under the power lines at dusk, it’s a lovely enough sight you wish you could stay there and roll with him a little longer.
The movie is a little too reliant on a good visual thing though when it comes to the wealth of concert footage. The first or second time that Singer starts a performance shot from behind Mendes’ bare shoulders (he is always, at all times in concert, wearing what used to be called a wifebeater), audience spread out before him, then pans around to the singer’s side, it’s an impressive, even galvanizing view of what it’s like to be on stage in such a setting. By the fifth or sixth the same shot is used in a different setting, it’s an overworn trope. (Mendes has a handsome back, but not that handsome.) The film also gives us two separate glimpses of Mendes showering (politely, of course, from the navel up), which borders on a pandering case of TMI in a film that otherwise has little information to convey at all.
“I wish at the end of this tour I had some profound thing to say about all this,” Mendes says in voiceover in the closing moments of the movie. Although he does provide a kicker to that — “I’m just a guy who really loves music” — it may be the first part of that statement that resonates most with the not-quite-fanatical viewer. Sometimes a music documentarian in the employ of a star lets the cameras roll and enjoys some good, unexpected narrative fortune, as Swift’s director did with “Miss Americana,” when the subject went out on a political limb, or J Balvin’s did with the upcoming “Boy From Medellin,” when that star got caught up in a divisive hometown controversy. It was Singer’s luck, meanwhile, that he went out on the road with Mendes and all either of them caught was a rasp.