Film Review: One Direction: This Is Us

Feature-length reality show masquerading as a documentary. Top-notch craft, lowdown whitewash.

Morgan Spurlock made his bones directing the audacious, Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me (2004), in which he became a human guinea pig to viscerally drive home his thesis about American fast-food consumption. There and in subsequent projects he's proven himself as astute at creating thought-provoking, self-consciously clever nonfiction and just as astute at self-promotion. With his 2011 documentary POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, he both examined product placement and indulged in product placement, from the title on down. It was only a matter of time before he sold out completely, and here's the result: a whitewashed reality show about the popular boy band One Direction, produced by the group's music label and featuring staged sequences far beyond the concert stage. Documentary? No—or only by the bare dictionary definition. This is just a glorified electronic press-kit featurette.

Admittedly, it's a very well-made EPK featurette. Spurlock is talented, and this behind-the-scenes look at the U.K.-based One Direction's recent sold-out tour of Europe, New York City and Mexico is visually creative, beautifully paced and edited and human-scale, and comes off the screen with a genuine sense of specific places that's as three-dimensional as the film's particularly effective 3D. The concert scenes never drag and Spurlock shows a knack for making them feel like intimate spectacle. One Direction: This Is Us undoubtedly will do its job catering to the quintet's legions of teen-girl fans and make plenty of money for everyone involved.

But by hiring a man known as a documentary director—when any number of concert-film specialists could have provided a product with just the same appeal to the band's fan base and made just as much money—the producers signaled that they wanted This Is Us to be taken as a real documentary. The title itself stresses a claim of factual, here's-the-truth veracity. "Forget what the magazines say! This is us!" So if that's how you position it, that's how you have to be judged—and in that respect, Spurlock here has compromised whatever credibility he had. I'll never be able to see another of his films without wondering what he left out or misled us about because the producers told him to.

His master in this case is Syco Entertainment, a joint venture of music mogul Simon Cowell, the band's impresario, and Sony Music, the band's label. If we're to believe the carefully vetted product here, these pop stars aren't just squeaky-clean but celibate without groupies or even girlfriends—all the more palatable to cow-eyed girls dreaming of themselves as "Mrs. Harry Styles" or "Mrs. Niall Horan." Styles very publicly squired singer Taylor Swift, so the film's pretending she never existed is bizarre, and band member Zayn Malik just announced his engagement to pop singer Perrie Edwards. And while this isn't the ’60s and One Direction isn't The Rolling Stones, there's not one joint nor even a bottle of wine backstage? They all just drink milk?

Even more disappointing are reality-show-like staged sequences. Spurlock wants us to believe he had two 3D camera crews in two very different times zones—the U.K. and Mexico—simultaneously filming both sides of a phone conversation between a band-member and his mother? I call bull on that. Even more blatant is an overnight camping trip the boys take "alone" with an off-screen camera crew. Sony Music has called the band a $50 million enterprise. Is that corporation really going to risk anything happening to any single part of this machine? That it's not going to have bodyguards, a medic, a producer's liaison, facilities for that entourage, sat-phone communication and probably a helicopter or bus standing by?

I'm not overstating: Here's what a British newspaper reported of another staged moment in the film, with Styles returning to the bakery where he'd been employed and joining his old co-workers behind the counter: "There were security and chauffeurs and minders outside, and there Harry was acting like he was still a baker's boy…" If the band's management had security, chauffeurs and minders outside a bakery, a place about as safe as can be, what would they have in the woods?

Still, the five singers themselves come off as solid, decent blokes, and I think that's genuine; articles quoting people who knew them before they were famous paint a picture of hard-working, well-mannered young men, and interviews in the film with their grateful, working-class parents are poignant and affecting. From all indication, the band-mates are dedicated to their music and take both it and their fans seriously—you can't help but like them and wish them well.

I've a feeling that would have been the case even if their management had let Spurlock show them warts and all, and I'm sorry Syco didn't trust the fans to accept the boys as anything less than idealized fantasy figures.

In an incredible bit of irony, Martin Scorsese, who worked on Woodstock and directed one of the most critically lauded concert films, The Last Waltz, appears backstage in one shot with, presumably, a granddaughter. Ask yourself if Martin Scorsese would have whitewashed a music documentary and staged sequences for it.