America is great at producing pop idols. From Sinatra to Elvis, from Fabian to David Cassidy, from Leif Garrett to Ricky Martin (to name just a few), every generation claims some theretofore unknown performer as theirs and, for a couple of years or so at least, a young, handsome performer enjoys a level of overheated devotion usually reserved for cult leaders. At the beginning of the 21st century's second decade, it's Justin Bieber's turn in the white-hot spotlight, and the documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is bound to become one of two things: a record of Biebs beginning his march to world domination, or the thing we look back on in sadness when his career devolves into tabloid covers and reality-show ridiculousness. As for right now, though, the movie is an absolute success at maintaining and building the Bieber brand.
Directed by Step Up 2 and 3 director Jon M. Chu, the movie actually offers less concert footage than you might expect. Instead, it focuses on the teen sensation's childhood, serving up home videos of the tyke displaying an early knack for drumming. This footage -- presented to make girls exhort "awwwwwwwwww" with dreamy approval -- intertwines with shots of Justin touring, relaxing with his friends in Canada, and preparing for a sold-out show at the historic Madison Square Garden.
We meet the people who surround JB on a daily basis, including his manager, Scooter Braun, straight-talking vocal coach Mama Jan, career guidance counselor Usher, and Bieber's adoring mother, Pattie Mallette. Individually their personalities can be a little hard to take -- Braun's story of how he discovered Justin's YouTube videos and dropped everything in his life to find the kid has an unintentionally creepy/predatory quality to it -- but the film shows us how they work together to keep their meal ticket safe, happy, and as normal as possible while making sure he's ready for every appearance, photo shoot, and concert.
One of the best sequences involves Braun handing out floor seats to various fans who make a pilgrimage to the arena on concert nights even though they don't have tickets. It takes a hardened cynic not to enjoy watching girls' eyes get bigger than Justin's hair and nearly faint in gratitude and anticipation -- awwwwwwwww indeed.
Never Say Never isn't so good that it will convert Bieber haters, but it's more watchable than those people might expect. Since he's one of the first superstars who owes his career to YouTube and Twitter, the movie becomes, in some ways, a tween variation on The Social Network. In addition, the cameras don't shut out hints of darkness -- Bieber's father is there just enough to make us wonder why he isn't there more, and the little heartthrob does feed off the adulation enough that you wonder what life will be like for him when it inevitably dissipates.
But none of that will bother the true Beliebers (as his hardcore faithful are known). No, they'll squeal at every reveal of his naked torso, shriek during the slow-motion movement of their idol's signature hairstyle, and weep with uncontainable joy at his seeming perfection. Awwwwwwwww.