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MOVIES | "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never": A giant 3D encounter with the Jesus of Pop
As my coblogger Sarah Heuer and I walked out of the preview screening of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never on Wednesday night, a publicity rep with a notepad asked what we thought of the film. "It was a really good movie," I said. The rep wrote it down, but seemed to be waiting for more. I gave her something a little zingier: "I don't believe in God, but I believe in Bieber." She nodded and wrote that down too—or at least pretended to.
Before seeing the new 3D documentary I knew little about Justin Bieber. I liked his song "Baby," and I knew that it was his endlessly trending name on Twitter—last September, a Twitter employee disclosed that no fewer than three out of every 100 tweets were Bieber-related—that had supposedly inspired Twitter to revise the algorithm by which trending topics are computed. Since trending topics tend not to inspire faith in humanity (currently trending: "WeNeedLovato"), my expectations for this giant three-dimensional encounter with Bieber were modest.
They shouldn't have been. The quote I gave to the publicity rep was entirely serious: Justin Bieber is more God-fearing than me, and why wouldn't he be? It would be impossible to be Justin Bieber and not believe that there was some higher power that brought you into being, because how could a mortal womb birth such preternatural perfection? His nickname should be the Jesus of Pop.
Like Jesus, Justin Bieber was born in humble circumstances, raised by a single mom in low-income housing in Stratford, Ontario (pop. 32,000). Never Say Never, directed by Jon Chu, convincingly argues that Bieber was born to fill stadiums. Video of the young Bieber shows a child who, as soon as he could walk, demonstrated not just an unmistakable aptitude for music but also the motivation to capitalize on it: he hung out with the rock band that practiced in a nearby house, learned to play drums, learned guitar, and, before he finished grade school, was attracting crowds as a street busker and in talent competitions.
YouTube was, famously, the vehicle of Bieber's success—he was spotted by industry insider Scooter Braun and introduced to a quickly-ascending chain of influentials including Usher and L.A. Reid, ultimately being signed to Island Records—but while social networking sped Bieber's rise, it seems inevitable that one way or another, he would have risen. The Bieber we meet in Never Say Never possesses an uncanny combination of complete self-assurance and authentic-seeming modesty. If it seems implausible that a young teenager would work so tirelessly to build a vast army of fans, think about the insatiable way that ordinary 16-year-old boys approach hockey, or video games, or getting girls (or boys); that's how Bieber approaches mass entertainment. He's the Tiger Woods of teen idols, and if he proves to share Woods's weakness for shady hookups, no one with a pulse will be safe.
Unsurprisingly, Never Say Never hits all the conventional bases as it counts down to Bieber's August 2010 performance at the iconic Madison Square Garden. We meet his devoted mother and maternal grandparents, we meet his family-like road crew, and we hear testimonials from the industry titans who took a chance on him. (Here's a drinking game for when this movie comes out on video: every time Bieber and Usher hug, take a shot.) Bieber's parents separated when he was very young, and Dad Bieber makes a brief, provocative cameo that involves looking uncomfortable backstage and then silently crying as his son performs.
The film is consistent with the Bieber brand in its tenderly affectionate approach to Bieber's untold legions of fans—especially the teenage girls who most assiduously hold vigil before his image. From A Hard Day's Night and Don't Look Back on down, there have been plenty of films to depict rabid, screaming fans, but Chu generously gives Bieber's fans a chance to talk, a chance to sing, and a chance to share the spotlight.
At its best Never Say Never is not really a film about Justin Bieber. The gifted performer is at the film's center, but what is there to say about him? He can sing, he can dance, he can work a Rubik's Cube at high speed, and he even pauses to pray over his pizza when he's hanging out with his hometown friends. (One of Bieber's buddies, in a moment that he's never going to live down, tells the camera that "We cherish the time we have together.") When Bieber dropped a three-pointer at the Stratford Y with the ball touching nothing but net, Sarah turned to me and asked, "Is there anything he can't do?"
Godlike though Bieber might be, he can't personally hang out with seven million Twitter followers. "This movie isn't about me," tweeted the Bieb, "it's about believing in a dream. We can all share in that." Never Say Never is genuinely moving when it turns to the girls who lay their own dreams at the feet of their idol—who takes their money, yes, but also treats them with the respect and consideration they may find lacking in the boys who are more accessible to them.
For the song "One Less Lonely Girl," at each live show Bieber's people select from the audience one girl who may or may not be lonely but who follows them in stunned disbelief until she is ushered out on stage and personally serenaded by the golden boy himself. In Never Say Never, we see one of the chosen girls return backstage and simply explode into tears. "I just love him so much!" she sobs.
And who doesn't? How could you not? Millions of girls go to sleep every night knowing that even if their parents are mean, their teachers are unforgiving, and the boys they know are immature jerks, Justin Bieber is real. They'll probably never meet him—it's hard enough just to score a ticket to see him in concert—but wherever he is, he's really there, tweeting right into their phones. Will they make the cheerleading squad? Will those boys in the high school rock band finally notice them? Will they pass algebra? If Bieber is possible, anything is possible. Never say never.
©2011 Jay Gabler