The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Never Say Never
Justin Bieber makes the girls go wild.

The comedian Dennis Miller once said, "I mock that which I do not understand." That's kind of my motto too, which brings us to the topic of pop star Justin Bieber. Nearly two years ago, I woke up one morning and turned on MTV. (The crack of dawn is the only time the channel shows music videos anymore.) There on my screen was a Justin Bieber video. I immediately hated it. From my perspective, he was a record label product, designed to sell a homogenized version of R&B to suburban tweens. Let's face it: the music biz has a long history of doing just that sort of thing. Today I walked into a theater to see the documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Turns out I might have been a little condescending in my analysis of young Mr. Bieber. The film does a good job of telling his story and explaining his appeal. Now that I understand, I feel no more need to mock.

Fans will know his amazing backstory; I did not. Bieber was born in Canada. His parents separated when he was just ten months old. From an early age, it became clear that he had a distinct sense of rhythm. He was a virtuoso on the drums, and also played piano and guitar. Of course, he sang and danced. Bieber began posting performance videos on YouTube, which gained instant attention. An Atlanta record company executive named Scooter Braun saw those videos and brought Bieber to Atlanta, where he introduced the aspiring singer to influential people like R&B star Usher and music mogul Antonio "L.A." Reid. Contrary to many people's opinions (including mine), Bieber was not an easy sell; industry wisdom said that Braun couldn't successfully launch him without either the Disney or Nickelodeon "machines" behind the effort. Determined to prove them wrong, Braun and his team sent Bieber to radio stations around the country. They made him perform at amusement parks - in the rain, no less - for forty people. He showed up at malls and high schools. The fan base, fueled by YouTube, continued to grow, and within a year and a half, Justin Bieber was the hottest thing in music.

The early scenes in Never Say Never recount this journey from minor internet notoriety to genuine stardom. The later scenes look at the Bieber phenomenon today, as the singer prepares for a major milestone: playing Madison Square Garden. 3D concert scenes are interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage showing the rigors of touring, the joys of connecting with fans, and the challenge of keeping the young star from becoming another casualty of fame. Granted, this is the "official" version of Justin Bieber's story and therefore potentially sanitized in some ways. Still, it's hard not to be impressed by how grounded those around Bieber are. They actually appear to be looking out for his best interests. His vocal coach, in particular, is unafraid to (figuratively) slap some sense into him when he needs it. Through the course of Never Say Never, we meet his mother, his managers, his producers, and his mentors. We even meet the girl who beat him in a Canadian talent show before he became what he is today. She still seems proud of that. She should be.

The concert scenes are well staged, largely capturing the feel of being at a live show. Fellow performers Miley Cyrus, Usher, Ludacris, Boyz II Men, and Jaden Smith (inexplicably billed as a "karate expert") join Bieber onstage. In one of the most entertaining moments, the cameras follow an assistant as she plucks one lucky fan out of the audience to be serenaded by the singer onstage. Bieber gives the girl flowers, sings to her, and wraps his arms around her. She melts into a pool of tears. Director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2 and 3) nicely balances the live performances with the documentary footage, creating a movie that moves briskly while simultaneously explaining and showcasing its subject.

Let's talk about the hair. Justin Bieber is famous for his hair. It is a silly preoccupation among his diehard fans, yet he seems to be fully aware of this fact. To show that he (thankfully) doesn't take himself too seriously, there is a completely gratuitous sequence in which he tosses his famous hair for the camera - in slow motion and in 3D.

Never Say Never makes it clear to me that Justin Bieber is one of those people with the desire to entertain built into their DNA. He is focused and driven. He wants this. When a throat irritation forces him to postpone a show, he's devastated because he doesn't want to disappoint his fans; the adults in the room actually have to talk him into taking a rest. Whenever he starts to lose focus during the tour, one of his handlers only needs to remind him that it was his choice to pursue stardom and he immediately centers himself. Although he enjoys it, this is not playtime for Bieber, as it seems to be for some of the Disney and Nickelodeon stars. Can you imagine being fifteen and performing in front of thousands of people at Madison Square Garden without soiling your pants? I can't. Bieber does it like an old pro. The stage is where he feels most comfortable. Whatever makes someone a star, he's built from that material.

There's more to this kid than I ever gave him credit for. I'm still not going to buy any of his records (I'm more of an alt-rock kind of guy), but I will certainly listen to his music differently now than before, which is the best compliment I can pay the film. Never Say Never is obviously going to be enjoyed by the fans. I can only review it as an adult who admittedly didn't get Bieber's massive appeal before. I get it now.

( out of four)

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.