Justin Bieber (left) and rapper Usher perform together
in Bieber’s new movie, “Never Say Never.”Justin Bieber, showing off an impressive talent this month for being everywhere at once, appeared last week in a segment on “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart and the Beeb played as if they’d switched bodies, a la “Freak Friday.” As Stewart mopped up the bit and settled into his chair, he mentioned that Bieber was a really nice kid and was surrounded by people who only had his best interests at heart.
That last part was a joke, of course, but “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” — the 16-year-old superstar’s new biopic and 3-D concert movie, opening Friday, — works hard to sell those two points, showing us what a regular guy Bieber is and how well cared for he is by a legion of laminate-wearing, salaried guardians.
It’s a blemish-free company line, and it presents a compelling case that Bieber is a preternaturally talented singer that fans — at least at first — discovered on their own, without having him thrust upon them by megalithic corporate taste-makers.
The film opens and closes at youtube.com, starting with the first viral video posted of Bieber singing a Chris Brown song and ending with a graphic presentation of the video links being copied, e-mailed and tweeted ad infinitum. In between, we see Bieber’s family and manager, who latched onto him after himself receiving an e-mailed link to one of the videos, attempt to corral the online popularity into something bankable.
A manufactured family takes shape. Bieber’s real family is present, though here they watch from the sidelines, as wide-eyed and amazed by the whirlwind as the rest of us. Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette, who raised him as a single mother starting in her teens, narrates some home movies early in the film, then largely disappears. Bieber’s dad appears once backstage. The pater familias in this incorporated nuclear unit is manager Scooter Braun. Describing his role, Braun says, “90 percent of my job is helping him to be a good man.” (He’s not just a shadowy svengali. In the film’s opening credits, the logo for Scooter Braun Films was hooted and cheered nearly as loudly as the title by my screening’s predominately pre-teen female audience.) The stern mother figure is vocal coach Jan Smith, actually billed as Mama Jan Smith in this “very functional dysfunctional family” (her words). The stylist and the security chief are rascally brothers. Together, they remind Justin to brush his teeth and clean his room, as well as autograph photos for the radio giveaway and consider his “professionalism.”
Boundless material from family scrapbooks and hard drives — endless baby photos (they grow tiresome, bordering on infantilism), video after video of Bieber bashing away at ever-growing drum kits — asserts that the talent was inherent before the professionalism. When we see toddler Bieber pull Christmas paper off a large bongo drum and immediately begin beating on it, his time is indeed remarkable. The video of Bieber, still all baby fat and a first set of teeth, busking on a sidewalk with an acoustic guitar is genuinely worth a few bucks in his jar.
“Never Say Never,” like its namesake song, moves forward at a lively pace. Director Jon Chu helmed last year’s “Step Up 3D,” a movie all about visuals, not story. There’s a story here but not much drama. Chu tries to rectify that by framing the film within a countdown to Bieber’s sold-out Madison Square Garden concert. The see-saw between snappy backstage sequences and the 3-D performance scenes — where the sparingly used 3-D effect makes it appear that Justin is pointing directly at you, yes, you! — feels like Madonna’s “Truth or Dare.” Without the sex and foul language, of course, though Bieber appears topless here, too, and the audience squeals every time.
What the movie doesn’t do is give us even a glimpse of an unsanitized, realistic, non-“live your dream”-platitude teenage boy. There’s a good documentary to be made someday interviewing all the people are who ignored in this film — the band, the bus driver, the dancers, the girls and women who’ve already found themselves the focus of his hormonal attentions. (Miley Cyrus shows up here, looking 37 and jaded and wearing a resigned expression that telegraphs, “I’m reading my Beeb-empowering lines, but I could tell you some stories about this kid.”) For now, this engaging product endorsement will have to do.