For almost as long as there have been teenagers, there have been teen idols. In the 1940s, you had Frank Sinatra making the bobbysoxers swoon. In the 1950s, it was Elvis and Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone and Fabian. When I was a kid, my classmates were crazy about John Travolta and Shaun Cassidy -- and some of them even believed the hype about the Bay City Rollers being the new Beatles.
Well, that never really panned out and there's no reason to think One Direction, the wildly successful boy-band from the U.K., is ever going to eclipse John, Paul, George and Ringo either. Yes, comparisons are certainly drawn between the Fab Four and the five pin-up-ready guys in One Direction: This is Us, a feature-length infomercial directed by Morgan Spurlock.
But Simon Cowell, the group's shrewd Svengali, must know in his heart of hearts that most pop phenomenons are far more likely to end up in the cut-out bin than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Some of the few startling moments in the film come when band members Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan and Liam Payne ponder their futures. Even though they're young, they're old enough to understand that every red-hot act eventually cools down and the vast majority of them break up within a few years.
For the time being, however, the quintet is staggeringly successful, selling millions of CDs and downloads and filling up tens of thousands of seats at arenas around the world. No matter where they go, the songs remain the same and so does the reception: screams, gasps, declarations of eternal love -- you know the drill.
The movie reaches far back into the past -- you know, like all the way back to, like, 10 years ago! -- to let us see how adorable the boys were before their voices changed and Spurlock provides a concise history of the group's creation on the British version of The X Factor. In the three years since, they've been continually touring, recording and doing promotion: At one point, Niall's mother reveals he's only been home to visit for five nights since he left for The X Factor auditions.
Since This is Us tends to play like a piece put together by the One Direction fan club, there is never a mention of anything unwholesome happening on the road: no groupies, no illicit refreshments, not even any identifiable alcohol. That's not to say that the guys don't know how to have a good time, though, as evidenced by the surplus of gratuitous underwear shots Spurlock captures. Most of them are born clowns, particularly the sassy Styles, who delights in sabotaging photo shoots, and the enormously charismatic Payne, who flummoxes choreographers and plays practical jokes onstage.
By and large, the five emerge as likable, energetic types who would probably be fun to hang out with. As for their music: Aside from the infuriatingly catchy "What Makes You Beautiful" and a cover of Wheatus' "Teenage Dirtbag," most of it is bubblegum balladry and bouncy melodies about the joys of young love. One British critic talks about how there's an element of danger in One Direction's music; perhaps he's referring to a danger of cavities. Each member does have a sturdy, versatile voice, which is a pleasant surprise in this age of AutoTune and digital doctoring. They deserve better showcases than the bland, Cowell-approved material they're stuck with now.
It should be interesting to see how long One Direction holds up and where the group eventually lands in the pantheon of boy-bands. As for This is Us, it's a generally easy-to-take snapshot, even if it leaves you feeling like you're only getting part of the One Direction story.