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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage