Part biopic, part concert film and all crowd pleaser, "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" is a big, glossy celebration of the musical phenom that knows exactly what it needs to do to send its target audience of 'tween girls into a tizzy of giddy screams.
That includes an unusually effective use of 3-D from director Jon M. Chu ("Step Up 3D"), so get ready for plenty of shots of Bieber looking longingly into the camera, reaching out to grab your hand while singing one of his infectious pop tunes. (And parents, get ready for temporary hearing loss.)
Bieber would be an easy target for anyone who's graduated from junior high school: He's 16, smooth and pretty, with an androgynous look that recalls Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry" and a playful, non-threatening way about him. And that hair ... that famous mane that flips back and forth and always lands just right in a soft, feathered swoop. (What he wears on top of his head - an ever-present New York Yankees cap in his favorite color, purple - is more troubling. Given his ubiquity and influence, he could be molding an entire generation of unsuspecting young Yankee fans. And that would be bad.)
But as Chu's film reveals through home movies from Bieber's small Canadian town of Stratford, Ontario, early YouTube clips and interviews with the people who discovered him, he's preternaturally gifted, freakishly poised and incessantly hardworking. From the sense of rhythm he displayed at age 2 to his confident busking outside a theater at age 12 to the chutzpah he showed in approaching his eventual mentor, Usher, and offering to sing for him just a couple years ago, Bieber has always seemed fearless, yet somehow grounded.
He couldn't be more contemporary, having built a grass-roots support system through social networks, and yet he has that old-fashioned thing called moxie. And he genuinely seems like a good kid - it's hard not to like him.
Sure, "Never Say Never" plays like an extended infomercial for Bieber, similar to recent 3-D movies about Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Bros. We get no sense of who Bieber really is, whether he has any fears, if he gets sick of touring and misses normal-kid stuff, what he thinks about the hordes of girls who tremble and flail at the very mention of his name. But along those lines, Chu does an excellent job of conveying the incomparable thrill of being young and bursting with love for your first idol crush; the footage of girls sobbing and hugging actually gets repetitive, and "Never Say Never" probably could have been about 15 minutes shorter. But whether you grew up worshipping Paul McCartney or Shaun Cassidy, Michael Jackson or Justin Timberlake, you'll relate.
And Bieber - who may or may not have had any actual romantic contact with a girl, ever, as far as this film is concerned - at least knows how to make the girls feel special when mingling among them. During a particular song at each concert, members of his "team" pluck one lucky gal from the audience to sit on stage and receive roses and a special serenade. Whether or not he knows what he's doing, he's at least faking it well.
Performance is at the heart of "Never Say Never" - the title of one of Bieber's songs - with Chu tracing the days leading up to his Madison Square Garden concert, which sold out in 22 minutes. Handlers - including his devoutly Christian single mom, stylist, manager, voice coach and bodyguard - surround and guide him every step of the way, which provides some hope that he will make the transition to adulthood with more discipline and grace than other teen celebrities who shall remain nameless.
The sole source of tension: Will his strained vocal cords hold up for the big night? When you're as dreamy and magical as Justin Bieber, and everything's going your way, there's really no doubt. So you may as well just sit back and enjoy the show.
"Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated G. Running time: 105 minutes.