Before the internet, it was always the same story: Struggling singers were discovered in coffee shops, at open mic nights, or in subway stations. By and large, they had to wait for someone to discover them. Justin Bieber had the good fortune to be born in 1994, because by the time he was old enough to vie for media attention, he and his mother had YouTube at their disposal. In many ways, it’s far easier to become famous nowadays; it’s simply a matter of digitally uploading a video onto a website and waiting for the hits. There definitely will be hits, because just about everyone surfs the internet. The hard part isn’t becoming famous, but staying famous. That’s because the internet is saturated with videos of people who believe they have talent, and people are fickle. We don’t have to wait long periods for the Next Big Thing – we can instantaneously make it happen with the click of a mouse.
On the surface, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is really a straightforward documentary, interweaving concert footage with backstage interviews and personal testimonials. It was handled well, but it was also expected. Not so expected was what was lurking underneath, namely a fascinating and compelling subtext of caution. The film opens with a close-up shot of a computer screen, the unseen user watching various YouTube videos before discovering one of Bieber; after the end credits, the computer screen reappears, and we see that the user is e-mailing a new video to a group of friends. What’s never made explicitly clear is if the video is of Bieber. Is it possible that director Jon Chu is telling us that, despite Bieber’s tremendous success, his popularity hangs in the balance? One click – that’s all it takes.
There’s no denying that the kid is talented. One wonders, though: Would he have become so famous so quickly if he had been born as little as ten years earlier, when the internet as we know it was still just an idea? At age twelve, he was discovered on YouTube. At age thirteen, he had sung for superstar Usher and immediately signed to his label. Now on the verge of turning seventeen, he has been nominated for two Grammys and won Artist of the Year at the 2010 American Music Awards. He’s a full-fledged teen idol, and as was the case with female peers like Miley Cyrus, he has been manufactured within an inch of his life as albums, T-shirts, posters, hats, wrist bands, board games, bedding, and dolls. He’s also one of the only current male celebrities to have inspired a haircut, created by stylist Vanessa Price and reportedly worth around $750.
All of this in just three years. Not bad for a kid from Stratford, Canada, who was raised by a single mother in low-income housing. Will he still be famous a year from now? Two? Three? Ten? Or will he burn himself out before the age of twenty? The film, which in part follows him during his My World Tour, reveals that he’s sometimes willing to please his fans at the expense of his health; not long before his 2010 appearance at Madison Square Garden, he had to be talked out of performing one or two shows when doctors discovered he had swollen vocal chords and a throat infection. Is this serious commitment, or is this his personal attempt at acting out, as teenagers tend to do? You be the judge. I stopped trying to figure out teenagers a long time ago.
As far as structure is concerned, the film is competent and entertaining but hardly groundbreaking. The exception, of course, is that the concert portions are presented in 3D, which was surprisingly effective. The interview portions are in standard 2D, although I didn’t realize this until it was halfway over, at which point I briefly slipped off my glasses. Sure enough, the picture was completely in focus – and quite a bit brighter. When Bieber isn’t on stage performing, we see interviews with his mother, his grandparents, and his childhood friends, who still like to shoot hoops with him whenever the opportunity arises. The more interesting people in his life are the ones that manage his career, including his stern vocal coach, “Mama” Jan, and Ryan Good, who has been dubbed his “swagger coach.” Indeed, he’s a fifteen-year-old trapped in a man’s body – so energetic and loud, more of a big brother than a business partner. At one point, he and Bieber literally stop the film and warn the audience to refrain from texting. Odd, coming from a kid who religiously tweets.
Admittedly, Bieber’s music doesn’t do all that much for me. But then again, I’m not an eleven years old girl, so it wasn’t really meant for me anyway. He’s undeniably good at what he does, though. Watching him perform, one cannot help but see echoes of Michael Jackson, his quick moves and soulful voice combined with elaborate sets and flashy lighting. Will Bieber fare as well professionally? Keep in mind that, for most of his life, Jackson’s popularity never hinged on the latest video upload. What Justin Bieber: Never Say Never did for me had little to do with the music or the interviews; it opened me up to the fact that underdogs don’t exist in today’s digital world. Underdogs by definition have to fight their way to the top. Fighting doesn’t come into play when success is defined by random people watching a YouTube video.