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 world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times