Review: ‘Never Say Never’ offers a compelling chronicle of Justin Bieber’s meteoric rise to fame

By Todd Gilchrist In the timeless tradition of pure pop idolatry, it’s impossible to go into Justin Bieber’s film, ‘Never Say Never, ‘ without at least a few preconceived ideas or expectations. Mine was that the pop stars I’ve loved, such as The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, and plenty of others all arrived at success thanks to a successful combination of hard work, luck, and undeniable talent – all attributes which may or may not have played a part in Bieber’s current domination of the charts. And that’s precisely what director Jon M. Chu’s documentary-cum-concert film examines: how a sort of perfect storm of dedication, good fortune, and irresistible ability transformed an ambitious Canadian teenager into one of the world’s biggest stars.

But perhaps even more importantly, Never Say Never pinpoints, celebrates, and then channels that indescribable feeling that fans gets from loving their idol unconditionally, creating an experience that audience members can truly identify with, whether the subject of their own adolescent worship is actually this film’s star or the object of some earlier generation’s equivalent obsession.

The centerpiece of the film is Bieber’s August 31, 2010 sellout appearance at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which serves as the culmination of (according to his manager, Scooter Braun) a seemingly impossible year and three days of canvassing himself and his music into the hearts of a quite possibly indecent number of teenage girls. There’s some minor drama as to whether Bieber’s voice will be in good enough condition for him to perform at the landmark venue, but the fact that performances from the show are featured throughout the film more or less eliminates any suspense. Meanwhile, the remainder of the non-concert footage offers a more or less straightforward chronicle of the singer’s ascent to stardom, from his earliest days to his most recent sold-out show.

Having watched plenty of truly great pop stars come and go throughout the years, I admit I was initially skeptical about Bieber’s bona fides; for example, if you were around during their Motownphilly days, it’s easy to assume that having Boyz II Men provide backup vocals for him is less a tribute to their talent than an opportunity for Bieber to stand on the shoulders of (okay, former) giants. But that initial doubt fairly quickly dissolves once Chu reveals not just the depths, but the history (such as it is for a 16-year-old) of Bieber’s talent; watching him pound away on any available surface with perfect syncopation from a very early age demonstrates that this kid isn’t merely prepackaged adorableness, but a prodigiously-gifted performer whose abilities couldn’t be ignored. His evolution into the mop-topped superstar he is today, lovingly recounted via interviews with family and friends as well as a wealth of archival footage, shows that he wasn’t molded or shaped, but born to be in the spotlight.

Intercut with the concert footage and timeline of his career trajectory is plenty of coverage of his fans, many of whom are tween or teen girls who are virtually incapable of discussing him without tearing up or succumbing to an involuntary fit of shrieking enthusiasm. Although this provides considerable comic relief throughout the film, especially for those old enough to remember Beatlemania (much less more recent obsessions with the likes of the New Kids on the Block or ‘N Sync), what quickly emerges is a sympathetic portrait of the symbiotic relationship between a pop star and his fans – and indeed, an examination of the need among young people to feel a overwhelming, euphoric crush of love for something that they may in reality only superficially connect to. For anyone who remembers his or her own teenage melodramas, it becomes surprisingly affecting to see how meaningful it is for fans to simply be able to see Bieber in person, or, say, when he chooses a girl to serenade on stage, for them to feel the enormous validation and reassurance, even at a subconscious level, that any one could be the girl that he picks.

Musically speaking, Bieber offers some of the most saccharine bubblegum pop that’s possibly ever been produced, mercifully desexualized but not at the expense of romanticism; “Baby,” his biggest hit to date, offers precisely the same kind of yearning, wholesome affection as something like The Jackson 5’s “ABC,” and the remainder of his songs offer a similar sort of seductive purity, articulating the fathomless depths of feeling he’s experiencing because of a girl without turning his pleas into a more grown-up kind of longing. (It certainly doesn’t hurt that he receives coaching and guidance from more established artists like Usher, who could probably can and sell pop-honesty by the metric ton.)

At the same time, Bieber’s talent thus far lacks the kind of authentic emotional depth that, say, Michael Jackson possessed at even the beginning of his career, making his music no less enjoyable but certainly less appealing to listeners outside his current target demographic. But in that sense, his songs are perfect pop creations, a simulation of sentiment, where he thankfully makes up for a lack of real-world experience with a passion, and more importantly, a sincerity that serves as a perfectly acceptable substitute, especially for fans who can’t tell the difference between the two.

Ultimately, I can’t say that the movie made me a fan of his music, but Never Say Never certainly demonstrates exactly why so many others are. Again, however, what is more instrumental in this film’s success is not its self-aware celebration of all things Bieber, from his underdog saga to his spectacular, iconic hairstyle, but Chu’s ability to capture the feeling that comes from devoting oneself wholeheartedly to a song or performer, and further, from feeling the satisfaction that comes simply from being able to love something so much that it perhaps ridiculously brings you to tears – of enjoyment. In fact, it’s a feeling that I not only remember, but that I now envy because I seldom if ever experience it.

In which case, Never Say Never may not merely be a mantra that helped shepherd Justin Bieber through his meteoric rise to fame, but as well a deceptively-cliched lesson for grown-ups and cynics to take away from the film about how much one can enjoy something: no matter how silly or superficial some forms of adulation may seem, it’s not just possible, but necessary to try and preserve some sense of youthful enthusiasm throughout one’s entire life. Because there are always going to be things – songs, movies, yes, even celebrities – that affect us in profound ways, but their appeal is not always going to make logical sense. And in the best way imaginable, Never Say Never exemplifies the idea that sometimes it’s more important to just be able to feel great loving something positive than to kill yourself trying to figure out the reasons why you love it.

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