Justin Bieber in Never Say Never
oh god not the hand NOT THE HAND

Justin Bieber is a charming kid. If that statement made you want to kill small furry animals in rage, you might want to get out now. I saw Never Say Never because I knew the review would attract more traffic to my blog than a review of Beyond the Game or Splice. I saw it in 3D and with an open mind. I walked in to that theater saying to myself that if this movie was bad, I’d say it without hesitation. I was going to be entirely honest with this movie because that’s what my friends would want me to do. Boy, did that come back to bite me in the ass. See, I said I’d be honest with this movie. But I never thought I’d like it. Look at the title, look back down here. I’m not going to make that joke.

But the young Mr. Bieber is a charming kid and a gifted performer. His songs are the kind of inoffensive pop music that filled the charts while Vietnam’s war anthems were busy being remembered by history. He has clean dance moves and a strong voice. Onstage, he’s a magnetic presence. He doesn’t just take all of the attention given to him, he works for it. And he earns it. It’s true that Justin isn’t the only person working for his fame. He might not be the person most directly responsible for it, his manager being the one to drive him from one coast of America to the other. But if Justin weren’t a driven, talented and passionate kid determined to make music his living, he wouldn’t be onstage singing. And I respect that.

Bieber started as a performer at a very young age. Born to a teen mother and raised as much by her as by his grandparents, southpaw JB demonstrated musical aptitude early. As in, when he banged on the chairs in his house, it was in time with the song on the radio. All of this was captured on the family’s camcorder. I’ve never questioned why a teen mother can afford a camcorder to record her admittedly cute son. The kid was adorable as a baby, as an eight year old, and was the kind of precocious schoolkid to play drums for the church band.

Bieber, as any southern Ontarian worth their salt knows, was born in Stratford, Ontario. I’ve been to Stratford, and I’ve seen productions in the Avon theater. When Bieber visits his old house while taking a break from his world tour, I know his house. I’ve seen a thousand of them walking distance from my front door and in every city in my region. It’s little things like this that remind us: no matter how much we’re indifferent to Bieber’s music or how much we may dislike the media machine thrusting him to multinational attention, Justin himself is just a regular kid. A regular kid who wants very much to make a living by singing, dancing and playing, but a regular kid nonetheless.

Interspersed with concert footage from his show at Madison Square Garden (the only parts of the movie filmed in 3D, so you pay a surcharge for a good half hour of footage) are interviews with friends, family members and his crew. Justin’s manager, Scooter Braun, is the standout here, in my eyes. In all the footage we see of him interacting with Bieber, he’s the one on the crew without a sense of humour. E.g., he’s the one to get Bieber to stop trying to drive a forklift. Yet, behind the scenes, in his interviews, you can see how he’s the one pushing and pushing and pushing to get Bieber into the spotlight. He believes in this kid as seriously as some people believe in god and has made a job of it.

Clips from YouTube are also spread evenly throughout the feature. You can see the development in Bieber as an artist–both from him and from the team assigned to him–in the contrast between these and his MSG performance. It’s the most telling that every time Justin Bieber had an acoustic guitar in his hands offstage and without handlers, I found him an infinitely more engaging and interesting performer. The songs were still lite-pap, designed to be as inoffensive as possible, but without the painfully R&B/disco production, Bieber can be a raw and honest performer. Let’s not forget, this current teen sensation is the son of a teen mother and got his start by busking. Sure, almost immediately, he was swept up by the publicity machine, but he comes by his talent honestly, through work.

There are, of course, the requisite celebrity appearances and guest performances during his concert. Boys II Men provide backing vocals on “U Smile” (typing that song title just gave me cavities), Miley Cyrus does a short duet with Bieber on a love song toward the end (Bieber wants to, but you can tell Miley’s friendzoning him, like OMG) and Chris “Ludacris” “Burnin’ Bridges” provides his guest verse on “Baby”. I should ask now, when did Ludacris or Snoop Dogg become family friendly entertainers? Am I missing a memo here, or is the same nation that won’t allow PG rated sex in video games also telling me with a straight face that Snoop Dogg and Ludacris are musicians they want their young girls to listen to?

It’s hard not to make some big philosophical point out of this movie. In fact, it’s impossible, and tomorrow I’m publishing an article defending its score here. For now, I’ll say that Justin Bieber is a charming kid, a gifted performer and a talented multi-instrumentalist. This kid has the tools available to him and the fanbase necessary to record an entire album by himself in his bedroom and have it sell millions. At the moment, he’s locked into the machine of child stars and early fame. There are two notable performers to come out of that world: Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake. I’m hoping we have another JT on our hands–not another MJ. THREE AND A HALF STARS