The members of One Direction auditioned for the British talent contest “The X Factor” individually and were cut individually. But at the last minute, show creator Simon Cowell decided to have them compete as a group, whereupon they made it to third place before launching to global stardom.
These are the facts that many people, if they know anything about One Direction, already know. They’re also more or less the only facts that the concert documentary “One Direction: This Is Us” bothers to share. It’s unlikely that anyone will leave with more information than they had going in.
For Directioners (as fans are called), that’s no big deal. But unlike, say, “A Hard Day’s Night” (an unfair comparison nonetheless invited by the self-aggrandizing inclusion of a clip of a newswoman saying, “Even the Beatles didn’t achieve such trans-Atlantic success so early in their careers”), “This Is Us” won’t convert any grown-ups who might be predisposed to scoff at the latest teen idols, and it doesn’t bother trying.
It’s not that Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, and Louis Tomlinson aren’t charming and likable. They seem to genuinely love each other and being in One Direction. “Yeah, I am [in a boy band], but I’m in a cool boy band,” says Malik, and the sprightly puppy-love confections they sing in the concert footage (shot mostly at London’s O2 Arena during the tour that brought them to Mansfield in June) are power pop at its most bubble gummy.
The problem is that the movie offers no way of differentiating between them beyond their hairstyles. Where boy bands once had a strict delineation of personalities — the Funny One, the Bad Boy, etc. — everybody in One Direction is presented as the Amiable Goof-Off. Horan disguises himself as a hairy security guard and baits Directioners. (When one asks who his favorite member is, he replies “Darren.”) They tweet at fans to flood their Amsterdam concert with orange clothes and face paint. They pants one another on stage, pick each others’ noses, and fart on the tour bus.
Hints of more melancholy stories bubble under the surface. One mother talks of buying a cardboard cutout of her son to say good night to; another says matter-of-factly, “This is the fifth day he’s actually been home since he left two and a half years ago for ‘The X Factor.’” Payne mentions that if not for the group, he’d probably be a factory worker back home, simply because that’s where the work was. But “This Is Us” never picks up on any of these threads.
Blame director Morgan Spurlock, who disappears inside the One Direction machine and delivers a shapeless jumble of footage with no direction of its own. The only hints of the impish (if flawed) wit behind Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” (2004) are a parodically ultra-serious neuroscientist explaining how music releases pleasure-generating dopamine, and Horan taking a quiet, patient walk from his interview chair to the window, which he leans out of to generate a sudden, massive explosion of screams from the street below.
Ultimately, the movie’s less about One Direction than about the One Direction phenomenon, turning the lads into supporting players in their own story. Many scenes can be summed up as “Look how many people showed up!,” and even the performances (rendered in unnecessary 3-D, with goofy effects like space-invader graphics flying off the screen) are truncated and often interrupted by cutaways.
All of it makes the documentary less a story than a scrapbook. One Direction may have forged seemingly random parts into a unified whole, but “This Is Us” can’t duplicate the feat.