These are hard times, people—difficult days lay behind and before us, and in these, our most desperate moments, there’s little joy to be found. This trickles down to our kids, whose innate prescience hips them to the fact that something is amiss, that the grown-ups done fucked something up again. We’re all but unable to protect them from images of war, the aftereffects of economic distress, or the nation-splitting cacophony of our loud and loutish political discourse. They should be worrying solely about the missing piece of their Lego set, the fact that it’s too cold to go outside for recess, or the difficulties they’re having mastering “Sex on Fire” on Guitar Hero. They shouldn’t have to hear Daddy wish aloud for Mitch McConnell to engage in sexual congress with a cattle prod. The young’uns deserve some modicum of joy in their lives, don’t they?
It was with all that in mind (plus my desire to sew up “Dad of the Year” honors early this year) that I acquiesced to my 11-year-old son’s request to see the Justin Bieber movie, Never Say Never, on opening night. My kid is hooked. Knows the words to all the songs, has the poster in his room, can do some approximation of Bieber’s dance moves. We even have the same kind of argument I used to have with my parents, over haircuts—it’s just that, instead of a mullet, we’re arguing about the tousled, windswept, Simple Jack ‘do Tha Biebs has perfected.
Now, I got no quarrel with Bieber or his fans. The stuff’s not made for me to like. I detest Creed and Matchbox Twenty and Daughtry and Josh Groban and Nickelback because I do not like their music and they’ve been marketed to people my age for, shit, 10 or 15 years now. Bieber’s music is sweet, disposable pop, and there will always be a need for that, if only to give kids ages 9 to 15 something to shake themselves to when their parents aren’t looking.
Never Say Never is aimed directly at that demographic and, judging by the t-shirts and screams and well-mannered mayhem at my viewing of the film, it hits the mark, repeatedly. Interspersing the 16-year-old’s biography with 3-D concert footage, Never Say Never‘s only real sin is that it preaches to the converted, and not so much their parents, whose presence had to be accounted for in the making of the thing—after all, 11-year-olds can’t drive, except in their dreams. And if Tha Biebs is about anything, he’s about kids going for their dreams.
We see that in the Bieber bio—the tale of the precocious Canadian lad, raised by a smokin’ hot single mother (wowsers, Pattie Mallette) and her parents. Through the years, he gradually devoted himself to music, teaching himself several instruments, jamming on drums at home and at church functions, and busking for coins outside a coffee shop in his hometown of Stratford, Ontario. He lost a talent competition to a young lady who is obviously proud to have taken down Tha Biebs (she’s on camera for about two minutes, shortly before being gunned down, gangland style, by the Bieber Mafia), but his smokin’ hot single mother posted a video of his performance (of Ne Yo’s “So Sick,” which I’d never heard before seeing the film) on YouTube, where it got mad hits and likes, and where she posted more videos before Li’l Justin caught the attention of budding Svengali Scooter Braun. Braun moved Tha Biebs and his smokin’ hot single mother down to Atlanta, where he brought the kid before Usher and LA Reid, then took him out on a tour of fairs and malls and radio stations, building the buzz that eventually led to a sold-out Madison Square Garden show, the climax of the film and the proof offered of Tha Biebs’ super-dee-duper stardom.
Along the way, we meet Bieber’s entourage, which, in addition to Braun and his smokin’ hot single mother, includes his bodyguard Kenny; his road manager, Ryan Good; and his guitarist/musical director, Dan Kantner, all of whom get to let their inner 16-year-old freak flags fly while touring with the kid. Voice coach “Mama Jan” Smith has the unfortunate role of being the sole adult on this whole thing. She seems to be the only one on Team Bieber who won’t fist-bump him or slap-fight with him or pick him up and deposit him in another location several feet away. She’s the only one who refuses to cater to his occasional bouts of the whinees, the “Why Me’s,” or pop-star “who’s-the-boss-here” moments. Their debate on whether a voice-weary Biebs can order McDonald’s McNuggets is one of the film’s highlights.
The energy is amped during the performance footage, where we get to see Bieber’s smooth, mannequin-like skin and scream-inducing dance moves up-close and personal. The stagecraft is Arena Pop 101, and, not that the kiddies will realize it, almost entirely lifted from Michael Jackson’s Dangerous and HIStory tour videos, from the statuesque posing to the pop-’n'-lock choreography. The 3-D filming is largely unnecessary, unless we really needed to have Bieber pointing in our faces or a confetti cannon going off into our eyes. The depth of field trickery makes the audience seem deeper and farther away from the stage (cool), but it also occasionally shrinks the performers into thin, distorted cutouts (not cool).
Oh, and there are guest stars aplenty. Usher, of course, is in the house, as are Jaden Smith (Spock to Bieber’s Kirk on the song “Never Say Never”), Boyz II Men (Pips to Bieber’s Gladys Knight on “U Smile”), Sean Kingston (Hutch to Bieber’s Starsky on “Eenie Meenie”), and Ludacris (Mr. Mxyzptlk to Bieber’s Superman on the film-closing “Baby”). Miley Cyrus (Linda Lovelace to Bieber’s Harry Reems) adds the skank factor during a run-through the duet “Overboard.” There were three separate times during the song where I thought Bieber was going to grab her tit in front of all those girlies in the audience, and I’ll lay odds Ms. Salvia 2010 would have let him.
But it’s not about the guests or the backstory; it’s not even about Bieber himself, or how many of his 15 minutes he’s burned through. It’s about joy—the pure, uncut stuff; the priceless stuff. It’s about the family who gets a ticket upgrade, from the nosebleed section to the fourth row. It’s about the one young hottie plucked from the audience each show to go onstage and feel the Bieberness up close. It’s about the kids in the arena, dancing with abandon, screaming themselves hoarse, singing along with every word. It’s about the kids in the theater watching those kids, feeling every song like they’re feeling their first crushes, feeling that first need for freedom from home and parents, that initial thought that there’s breadth and depth outside their own suburban existence.
It’s about the kid sitting next to me—the excitable, sensitive 11-year-old whose favorite things in the world are the sounds coming out of his iPod; the one I watched come into the world and who I hope to one day see make some significant improvement to that world. It’s all about his love, his palpable thrill, his voice raised in song with the rest. It’s about his joy, a joy he shares with others, but which is inextricably his own. I’ll sing the praises of anything that brings that out of him, even a singing doll-boy like Justin Bieber, or a piece of pure pop product like Never Say Never.