Bluster, blandness and poignancy in Morgan Spurlock's One Direction: This Is Us

One Direction's first film manages to balance contradictory versions of its mega-famous subjects to great effect, giving glimpses of both the public and private incarnations of the band members.

One Direction: This Is Us (3D) (PG)
dir: Morgan Spurlock

When the five-piece boy-band One Direction perform in the concert sequences of their first film, they are dwarfed at all times by vast fragmented images of themselves on video screens behind them. This is for the benefit of those fans seated so far back that they’re in a different postcode, but it also provides an ongoing metaphor for fame, which inflates people to many times their natural size while also breaking them into innumerable pieces and dispensing them among their worshippers. The special accomplishment of One Direction: This Is Us is to balance these contradictory versions of its subjects. On one hand, they are pop-culture titans who take in their skinny-jeaned stride a show in Mexico City before an audience of 65,000. On the other, they hide mischievously inside wheelie bins, loll around hotel suites in their pants and wonder aloud why Japan isn’t hotter when it sits, after all, slap-bang next to Australia.

The film intersperses excerpts from live shows with plentiful off-stage footage from the group’s first world tour, as well as a brief recap on their reality TV origins for those of us who haven’t watched The X Factor since the days of Peters & Lee. In that way, it works as both primer and fan-club memorabilia. There are childhood snaps and TV footage from a bygone era (i.e 2010). An extra-camp Simon Cowell, hands draped over a dainty teacup, explains how the fans propelled One Direction beyond their bronze finish in the X Factor final and into mega-stardom, but not how he manages to forge a centre parting in his busby-like hairdo.

Morgan Spurlock, who made his name directing gimmicky docu-comedies including Super Size Me, has a lot of fun with the disparity between the public and private incarnations of the band members. One, Liam, returns to the family home only to be spooked by a full-sized cardboard standee of himself, which his parents have installed in his room. What do you mean, “only a mother could tell them apart”? On the contrary, another miracle of Spurlock’s movie is that it brings to life as individual personalities these men who until now seemed to the uninitiated like little more than advertisements for maximum-hold hair product, with bodies attached.

Apart from Liam (big lug, credulous, sincere), let me introduce you to Niall (chirpy blonde goofball) and Zayn (brooding matinée-idol type). Less quirky is Louis, who has a touch of Stepford about him. But there’s always the rakish Harry, the band’s Lennon, prone to larking around during photo-shoots (“Do a normal one, please, Harry!”) but aware of when to hang back, say nothing, bide his time. He has a dry wit, too: contemplating the days when it seemed Zayn might be ejected from the group, he says, “Imagine:  Niall would have had to be the mysterious one.” (That’ll be Niall who farts in the tour bus, then denies it.)

Harry’s timing and fashion sense – he can carry off a trenchcoat while his bandmates slum it in hoodies – make it easy to imagine him in a members’ club in middle-age, though he must be wary of becoming the next Alex James. Come to think of it, that’s sage advice for anyone.

In touching on the neuroses of life in an unimaginably successful teen-bait chart act, One Direction: This Is Us doesn’t kill the monster in the manner of Head, the 1968 Monkees film which deconstructed the pop dream. But neither does it merely feed that monster; truer to say the film approaches it with the deepest curiosity, sometimes venturing inside the cage, elsewhere recoiling and prodding it with a stick. A recurring theme is the group’s amazement at how precisely they can modulate the behaviour of many thousands of strangers. To prove that One Direction have the most dedicated fans in the world, Niall rises at one point from the chair where he is being interviewed, bounces across the silent hotel room and throws open the window, where a swelling roar announces itself from the streets below. Spurlock wisely confines this all to one unbroken shot, like a conjuring trick, and the effect is reprised again and again—most spectacularly when the band peeks over the top of the Arena di Verona at thousands of fans whose volume they can raise or lower with the tiniest gesture.

It’s easy to see a strong sexual element here: five young men controlling the temperature of an entire city’s female pubescent population with a mere flick of their wrists. But the situation plays in reverse too. The ravenous young women have the upper hand when they make it impossible for the group to leave a tiny Amsterdam sportswear shop. “One of ‘em tried to grab me ear,” laughs Liam, with the same degree of amused confusion with which the band greet the prospect of miso soup.

If the scenes of hysteria align One Direction: This Is Us with Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, the picture’s melancholy undercurrent brings it closer to a more emotionally conflicted pop movie such as the insightful In Bed with Madonna – and not only because Martin Scorsese, bringing his daughter backstage at Madison Square Garden to meet One Direction, offers the most awkward celebrity compliment since Kevin Costner told Madonna her show was “neat.” Generous screen time is given to One Direction Snr – the group’s parents, that is – who pine for their sons as if they’ve just departed for the trenches. The fathers seem almost fearful of how their boys will have changed once they return from the theatre of war, or in this case, sixteen nights at the O2 Arena. (That place can be nasty. Have you seen what they ask for a hot dog?)

There is plenty of room for contemplation from the musicians themselves. During a staged camping trip, they ponder whether they will always be friends, and how strange it is that one day they won’t be doing “this” any more. Liam worries that people only like him because he’s a celebrity, while Harry points out that being called famous is no match for being considered a nice guy. It’s awfully poignant – like seeing the realisation of mortality dawning on a puppy’s face – and it tempers sweetly the bluster of the live shows, the blandness of the songs.

The band’s ambivalence about fame is expressed most piercingly during those digressions in which they dress in disguise to mill among their admirers, safe in the knowledge that no one would want to rip an ear from the head of the elderly, hirsute, overweight or ugly. When Niall dons whiskers and a padded suit to pose as a One Direction-hating security guard showing fans to their seats, he is flirting with what it would feel like to be anonymous, ignored, undesirable. “One Direction are crap,” he rages at the startled concertgoers before making his exit. “All go home!” In common with many parts of this sophisticated movie, it may be fake but that doesn’t make it any less real. 

(L-R) Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik and Niall Horan of One Direction. Photo: Getty

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution