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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era