The 1980s had New Kids on the Block; the '90s had the Backstreet Boys; and now boy bands are resurgent again with British group-of-the-moment One Direction, currently a chart-topping global pop phenom. While hardly a very incisive look at the band or its five individual singers — who are barely old enough to even have personal histories — Morgan Spurlock's documentary "One Direction: This Is Us" should score big with kids.
London-based One Direction flashed onto the international music scene in 2010, following the members' appearances on British TV's "The X Factor." Response to the group among young female fans was strong — particularly on social media — prompting the band to sign with Simon Cowell's Syco recording label, launching a 2011 U.K. concert tour and garnering a Columbia Records contract for their first studio album, the precedent-setting "Up All Night," which was followed by a North American tour.
Marking Spurlock's first concert doc, "This Is Us" picks up with 1D's 2012-13 world tour, covering more than 100 shows in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, culminating with a sold-out, four-night stand at L.A.'s Staples Center earlier in August. Now mostly pushing into their 20s, bandmembers Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, Liam Payne and Zayn Malik revel in their globe-trotting stardom, often performing back-to-back shows for legions of shrieking teen girls, their chaperones and even the occasional male concertgoer.
This might be a Spurlock documentary, but counter to his usual approach, the filmmaker doesn't make a single appearance. Shooting the band and their concerts in a variety of formats over six months at a series of international venues, Spurlock only wrapped up in June with 1D's Mexico City show. If the film's production schedule, driven by the practically nonstop concert dates, seems rushed, it doesn't particularly show. Throughout the film, live 3D performance footage alternates with scenes of "the lads" cutting up backstage, huddling in their tour bus, dodging fervent fans or making promotional appearances.
Overall, Spurlock plays things incredibly safely compared to his usual irreverent, hang-loose style. The concert scenes represent fairly standard fare, with 3D visual effects adding a touch of hyper-reality. Individual interviews with the singers create a more intimate vibe, with discussions ranging from their musical influences to expressions of homesickness and awe at their rapid rise to popularity.
All reportedly from working-class backgrounds (Irish lad Horan is the only non-Brit in the bunch), the bandmates remain humble, often expressing gratitude to their fans, crew and most of all their mums, who pop up in the movie with unnerving frequency. The filmmakers' intent to depict them as "normal guys" mostly succeeds, primarily due to their not inconsiderable charm. Scenes featuring their predominantly teen female fans are limited to crowd shots and brief sound bites, while any footage revealing smoking, partying or romance has been studiously excluded.
The band's songs are crafted by a rotating roster of outside songwriters with plenty of emphasis on romance or cheeky antics, and often sung with alternating lead vocals or in close harmony by the group. Onstage performance choreography is fairly basic and not always entirely in sync. Although Horan appears to be the only one playing an instrument on tour, the kids' singing is consistently engaging as they repeatedly strive to deliver for their young audience -- whether performing one of their numerous pop anthems (powered by a four-piece backing band that's mostly neglected in the film), catchy covers (Blondie's "One Way or Another"), or sweet ballads accompanied by Horan's acoustic guitar and plenty of sing-along participation from the concert crowds.
While repeated comparisons throughout the film to The Beatles are clearly misplaced both creatively and stylistically, One Direction's meteoric rise to fame is certainly a characteristic they share with the Fab Four, although their staying power might not be quite the equal of their fellow Brits.
"One Direction: This Is Us," a Sony/TriStar release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "for mild language." Running time: 95 minutes.