The closest that “One Direction: This Is Us” gets to actual rock ‘n’ roll is when members of the British boy band wear Rolling Stones or Doors T-shirts. But for audiences willing to spend some time basking in the glow of the teen sensation of the moment, this docu-music-infomercial is as palatable, and as disposable, as the group’s hit songs.
One Direction, best known for their global hit “What Makes You Beautiful,” is as pre-fab as any band since the Monkees; the five lads in the group had all auditioned separately for the U.K.’s “X Factor,” and when none of them made it to the final tier, pop mogul Simon Cowell threw them together and turned them into a band.
And while they didn’t win “X Factor,” they did endear themselves to enough British girls who turned them into Twitter phenoms before they’d even recorded their first album.
“This Is Us” puts a name director behind the camera — Morgan Spurlock, who knows his way around a mass-produced cheeseburger after making “Super Size Me” — but this movie sticks for the most part to the formula audiences will recognize from the recent Justin Bieber and Katy Perry documentaries. Cute baby pictures, early ambition, big break, screaming fans, world tour.
As with any boy band, One Direction has its roles divvied out, and the movie makes sure to reinforce them: There’s the Funny One (Liam Payne), the Dreamboat (Harry Styles), the Cute One (Niall Horan), the Enigmatic One (Zayn Malik) and the Other One (Louis Tomlinson).
The film is less interested in pushing the music (almost none of their songs is performed in its entirety) than in selling us these five guys who have become friends under the oddest circumstances.
We get to know them (or at least the image of them that Cowell and company want us to have), and they’re charming: each of them seems gobsmacked by the sudden fame, grateful to the fans who made it possible, and thrilled to be doing what they’re doing.
All of this makes “This Is Us” a reasonably fun sit, but if you’re looking for a documentary that’s going to rip the lid off what the lives of this band is really like, you’re not going to get it. There are no fights, no diva fits, no groupies, no drugs, not even any bad language. It’s as visually stimulating and kid-friendly as a Lisa Frank binder.
Spurlock does what he can to jazz up the concert sequences, using the video backdrops as a launching pad for 3D graphics that come shooting out at the audience, but he’s not really breaking any new ground. What’s most interesting about One Direction’s live performance is the quintet’s insistence on one thing that makes them stand out from pretty much every other post-New Kids on the Block boy band: no choreography.
None of these guys are dancers, so they don’t dance, which allows for a seemingly more relaxed and improvisatory stage presence.
Off-stage, we see the boys being good to their mums (Malik buys his a house), but Spurlock lets the chronology get muddled, which is quite a feat given that this group didn’t exist before 2010. At one point, Horan mentions that they’re recording their third album, and the movie hadn’t even mentioned a second one. If more than one world tour is being documented here, the editing doesn’t divide them up.
The movie offers its share of staged moments (the boys go camping in Sweden and bond over the fire) with a few completely random ones (Martin Scorsese comes backstage at Madison Square Garden to say hello; a young Mexican fan shows up in a carrot costume).
There’s a brief conversation between Payne and Styles about where their lives might have gone had this band never happened that feels so genuine and unstaged that it makes the rest of the film’s artifice that much more apparent.
“One Direction: This Is Us” probably won’t bring any non-fans into the fold, but it will thrill enthusiasts (the underwear shots drew lots of pre-pubescent squeals at an advance screening) and won’t completely irritate the short-straw-drawing parent who has to drive those enthusiasts to the multiplex.
Like the band itself, the movie is too unthreateningly nice to generate vigorous dislike.