It’s hard to take this week’s announcement, conveniently timed to coincide with the release of his new movie, that Justin Bieber is retiring all that seriously. But if the pop star really is calling it quits, it’s in keeping with the spirit (if not the content) of “Justin Bieber’s Believe.” Where Bieber’s first concert documentary, 2011’s “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” chronicled his rise to fame, his new one is damage control.
Bieber has had a year of terrible publicity, from simple tone-deaf narcissism at the Anne Frank House to alleged trysts with Latin American prostitutes. But except for a clip of Zach Galifianakis berating the singer about infamously peeing in a restaurant’s mop bucket, “Believe” doesn’t confront controversy but talks around it. Love and heartbreak are discussed exclusively in abstract terms, and friend Ryan Good and his mother both talk as though his biggest scandal is his baggy pants.
Instead, “Believe” takes pains to distract from his misbehavior by painting him as burdened by talent and goodness. Director Jon M. Chu hammers home the theme of Bieber as a musician from the start; the very first shot is of his tattooed arms playing piano. Later, he crafts lyrics – to what, it doesn’t matter, just that he’s writing them – and jams in the studio with producer Rodney Jerkins. There’s plenty of concert footage, though it actually does the least for his case.
The movie also foregrounds Bieber’s good-guy bona fides, as he befriends a terminally ill 6-year-old after she “married” him in absentia in the hospital. But his tour dancers expressing deep gratitude to him for hiring them seems to say more about them than about him, and it’s manager Scooter Braun, not Bieber himself, who continues to surprise shut-out fans with front-row tickets.
Everyone, meanwhile, frets about how much pressure the then-18-year-old is under. Braun sees him as so beleaguered by the press and paparazzi that he incongruously casts a massively successful and famous pop star as the underdog. (Jerkins apparently didn’t get the memo, saying of Bieber, “It’s a weird position to be in, to only be winning.”) The one time it genuinely rings true is in P.O.V. footage shot from inside Bieber’s car after a show, with so many girls pounding on the roof as the singer’s trying to make his escape that it’s unsettling. In that moment, it’s easy to understand why he might tell everyone he’s quitting, even just as a joke.