Last night, I had a bit of a dilemma. I saw Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Now, I bought the tickets, I bought snacks, I even got dinner beforehand. And I approached this film with an open mind. I thought that it would be mostly awful, or at least obviously the product of a media hype machine. Because it is the product of a media hype machine, and it knows it’s the product of a media hype machine–just look at the damn thing, right? It even has the kid’s name in the title. Incidentally, I got home and looked at the title of the last movie I’d reviewed whose review had gone up: Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth. I guess it’s just tradition for semi-biographical, semi-dramatic readings/songs’n’dances movies. And when the movie ended, I had good news and bad news. Good news is I’m more of a movie critic than I thought I was. I was able to watch a movie that I was prepared to hate and be pleasantly surprised.
Bad news is: it got three and a half stars and now I have to explain to all of my friends why I apparently liked this movie. I remember when Saul Williams let Nike use his song “List of Demands” in a series of commercials for sneakers. Williams’ audience is vocally anti-commercial in every way. His justification was kinda long and rambly–the man is a poet, not an essayist–but I got the gist under the writing. “I do what I want because I don’t have to justify myself to my audience. Or at least, I shouldn’t have to.” I shouldn’t have to either, but I also consulted my audience last night to trap them in my logics.
Let’s go through a few facts before I get to the conclusion of this piece. I’m a big fan of pop music. From The Beatles to the Beach Boys, through the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson. After I saw Justin Timberlake perform at SARS-stock, I realized two things. One: his agent was probably fired over putting him on a rock’n’roll bill, where he was booed by the audience. But two: Justin Timberlake is an immaculately professional performer. I don’t like his music, but I don’t have to like it to see that he cares about what he does and he does it well because he respects his co-workers and respects his audience. He gave that show his very best, despite playing an AC/DC, Rolling Stones crowd.
Seeing that performance gave me a lot of respect for pop musicians. As I said about Michael Bay, I don’t have to like their work, but I also don’t have to be a troll. That’s the mentality I had watching Justin Bieber performing in Never Say Never. Here’s this kid from Stratford, born to a teen mom, raised by her and her parents, who loves music. Justin may be on the stage at Madison Square Garden because he’s been the figurehead of a massive publicity push coming out of Atlanta, but he would be on any stage he could be right now even if he weren’t at MSG. He’s there because he loves music, he loves performing and he loves his fans. And that kind of naive kindness is something I can’t help but get behind.
What I saw onscreen was simultaneously a product of marketing–a feature length advertisement for Justin Bieber–and a portrait of a young performer who’s good to his family and good to his fans. It’s a lot of work being a pop star, and I realize that not everybody likes the music. But the career of a pop star who starts that young can only go a few places. You could go Lindsay Lohan or Miley Cyrus. You could go Hilary Duff or Haley Joel Osment. You could go Michael Jackson. There’s a point in Never Say Never when his manager is talking about Madonna at the MTV awards. She talks about Michael Jackson and how “we stole his childhood”. And Justin turned to his manager and said “please don’t let that be me.” That’s not a big positive note to hit in an ad for Justin Bieber’s new album–that’s a really dark realization for a kid to have.
And we don’t help when we heap scorn on him. I’m not saying I gave the movie a good write-up because I’d feel bad. I’m saying that acting like Justin Bieber is the worst thing to ever happen to music ever won’t help anything. We shouldn’t be worried about the strong North American tradition of pop music. In addition to the Bee Gees, we had countless disco acts. We’ve had pre-fab boy bands since the 60s, with the Monkees. Hell, we had pre-fab punk bands with the Sex Pistols and nobody complained. Pre-fab music where the manager is the one guiding the artistic direction of the artist is something that’s always been around and won’t go away. It also isn’t even that bad. When you say that Justin Bieber is the worst thing to happen to music in a century, you’re not only expending your own energy to rag on him. Your energy is going nowhere, because Bieber will be famous and there’s nothing we can really do about it.
So I gave this movie three and a half stars. Even that is a compromise. If I were to evaluate this film solely on how well it convinced me of its thesis, I’d have to give it four stars. I went in wanting to hate it and came out thinking that eventually, when Bieber breaks free of the publicity machine’s hold on his music, he might be a good artist. The movie’s thesis is that he’s a young kid with a kind heart, a lot of talent and a passion for music, and I was completely sold. It made me change my point of view on something, and it made me reflect on myself. It made me wonder who my obligation was towards. Who am I writing for? I asked my audience last night if they thought I was a movie critic.
They all said yes. And if I’m a movie critic, I have to be able to respect what I’ve written here. I have to be honest with myself and with my audience. I wanted to give you guys a bitingly negative review for fun. That was my mistake. I was there to see a movie, not write a review. Cos that’s what a real critic does. … I think I’ve grown, you guys.