My Three Favorite Quotes from Never Say Never:
“This is the best thing to have happened in my life.” —10-year-old girl, weeping upon receiving free concert tickets
“I think about him 99 percent of my life.” —another 10 yr old girl
“One day I tweeted at him 100 times.” —yet another 10 yr old girl
Look, I get that this isn’t a film for me. I’m a foreigner examining the artifacts of a foreign culture, whose ways and concerns are strange to me. I understand that I’m not the target audience. I know that the fervor for this tiny doe-eyed creature with a faux-Beatles haircut does not kindle strange longings inside me the way it does for a prepubescent girl. It’s a tricky thing for me to review this film. Thus I wanted to approach this film with proper humility, a fair-minded perspective, and open mind.
And I did. It’s still ridiculous.
Here’s an example. This film’s story is about how long his road to success has been. Yep, he’s a teenage boy who’s paid his dues! We see twelve-year-old Bieber busking on the streets of Small Town, Ontario and trying out on Idol-like shows. He gets on YouTube, gets seen by a wannabe manager who becomes his bonafide manager. January of 2009, Bieber’s playing at water parks for 40 people. He’s starts tweeting. He plays in high schools and on radio morning shows. By November of 2009, he’s causing riots in Long Island. In September 2010, he has a #1 album and has sold out Madison Square Garden. Oh no, he has a sore throat! Will he make his show at Madison Square Garden?!? Yes. Yes he will. And he does.
(Getting to Madison Square garden is life-long dream (or rather 18 month-long) after he sees Taylor Swift sellout Madison Square Garden, right? Yet he performs at MSG with Jaden Smith…who obviously got there only because his parents are Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith? So apparently it’s not just hard work that gets you to the Garden? I’m confused.)
I found myself most interested in the narratives that weren’t told. It is clear that Justin Bieber was raised by a single mother with the help of her parents; his father makes a brief, awkward appearance where he seems alternately embarrassed and teary-eyed. Bieber all but ignores his father.
The second interesting story is how the film actually stands as a testament to the twin powers of Twitter and YouTube, which function as proxies for the Disney/Nickelodeon machine that has propelled so many other child popstars to the top. That is a truly remarkable part of Bieber’s story—he is, in some way, a genuine outsider. Bieber’s success is not really in his music but in the harnessing of these nascent websites. It’s staggering how Bieber dominates both Twitter and Youtube.
Third, for a film about Justin Bieber, there’s curiously little from Bieber himself. There are two off-camera lines where he mutters something about chasing your dreams. That’s it. Everything else is recorded montages of home videos, concerts, and pre-arranged playdates with his old Ontario friends, who are now overawed and deferential to their superstar playmate. Bieber has no revealing moments talking to the camera; there’s no exploration of an artist’s struggles or dreams from his perspective. He’s a cipher. (Of course it could be his handlers realize that when he’s unscripted on-camera he often comes across as an unlikeable, insufferable brat who says imprudent things?)
But the final and biggest untold story, something that’s obvious but never really addressed–who has propelled Justin Bieber? It is the young girls, the wild-eyed children who hold their heart-hooked hands up like a wild barbarian race holds up totems to their blood-thirsty gods. The tween girls in the theater where I watched the film were just as enthralled, their theater seats rocking back and forth as they bounced to the songs, mouthing every word by heart. I heard one girl sniffling and cooing at footage of baby Justin Bieber wanting to shovel snow.
The crushing, mad devotion of these tween girls comes to an apotheosis in each concert. Before Bieber sings his song “One Less Lonely Girl,” a girl from the audience is plucked from her ordinariness to be the object of Justin’s chaste affections. He has a crewmember give him a bunch of flowers which he in turn gives to the girl. He serenades the girl. The film shows this repeated a half-dozen times at different venues, and the expression on the girls’ faces is always identical: the stricken rapture from basking in the brief glory of a demi-god.
There are a few scattered delights in the film. I like how Miley Cyrus has a special cameo warning Justin Bieber about the dangers of being a child star, but in a totally non-ironic way that’s very hilarious? The two have a duet and the petite Miley towers over Justin Bieber. (Bieber’s many montages of playing basketball seem to only emphasize what a tiny and fragile kitten he is.) And I find the images of children going bonkers with excitement pretty entertaining. Thus I laughed a lot at the adoring tween fans during this film.