I couldn't name a single one of Justin Bieber's hit songs -- but, watching Justin Bieber -- Never Say Never, I certainly was seeing something familiar.
And that's the phenomenon of the teen idol. While the children, pre-adolescents and teens (girls only, apparently, judging from audience footage in the film) who comprise Bieber's audience assume they are sui generis, it's actually a cyclical thing, going back at least as far as the 1920s and the birth of mass media -- to Rudolph Valentino through Frank Sinatra and the bobbysoxers in the 1940s, Elvis Presley in the 1950s, the Beatles in the 1960s and so on.
Bieber is just the latest manifestation: a pretty young Canadian lad of 16 (when the film was shot) with a clear voice, some decent dance moves and a flying squad of adults around him to take care of both business and Bieber.
Never Say Never is, at heart, a concert film, built around his first sold-out Madison Square Garden concert in 2010. Even as we watch him run through a show that features guest stars as diverse as Miley Cyrus, Boys II Men and Ludacris, we're seeing flashbacks to the weeks leading up to that MSG performance, which everyone keeps pointing to as a landmark in a young career.
Director Jon M. Chu fleshes the film out with documentary footage telling the rather short story of Bieber's life. Born to a teen mother who split up with Bieber's father before his first birthday; raised by his mom and his good-hearted grandparents in the small town of Stratford, Ontario; yadda yadda yadda. It's not exactly Oliver Twist.
Still, even someone who lacks susceptibility to Bieber fever can be impressed by the kid's precocity. There is home video of him as a toddler, beating complex rhythms in time to music played by a band that rehearsed in the apartment downstairs. Before long, he's sitting at a tiny drum kit himself, banging away with authority. By the early years of grade school, he's strumming a guitar and singing songs off the radio. Almost before he reaches double digits, he's busking on the streets of Stratford.
He jumps into a local American Idol-style competition at 12 -- and places second for the whole town. YouTube videos of that and other performances bring him to the attention of an American manager -- who flies him to Atlanta, introduces him to Usher and lands him a recording contract. By 14, the kid is a sensation.
And at 16, he's a superstar. One assumes that an artist as carefully controlled as Bieber (no bong-smoking photos of him, thanks) doesn't let a camera film him being snotty or a jerk. The footage shows a fairly average -- if sheltered -- 16-year-old, trying to maintain a normal relationship with his childhood friends, even when running around town together means that other people are reaching for their camera phones to record his sudden appearance at, say, the YMCA or a local waterfront park.
Onstage, Bieber has a sweet, personality-free voice. And while he handles choreography easily, he doesn't have that spontaneous magic of movement that, say, Michael Jackson had at Bieber's age. It's hard to decide what to think of a 16-year-old who can sell a song like such a pro, even as waves of screams cascade on him from the audience. His self-assurance is a little disconcerting -- but, as the home videos show, he always had that kind of natural confidence.
The music itself is easily digestible pop, tuneful, full of hooks and obvious romantic sentiment, empty of all other meaning beyond teen longing. He offers it while running through a handful of wardrobe changes, though each outfit is a variation on the theme of hoodie-t-shirt-skinny jeans, accessorized with hightops that are either black, white, red or purple and oversized backward baseball caps in a similar array of colors.
Teen phenoms come and go -- look at Tiffany and Debbie Gibson in the mid-1980s -- and some stick around (Justin Timberlake, for example) and turn into artists of more substance than anyone could have anticipated. Which fate awaits Bieber? As Justin Bieber -- Never Say Never seems to show, he has the talent to survive. Time will tell if he has the depth.
Meanwhile, don't even think of seeing this movie unless you're a pre-teen girl -- or the parent of one.