The backpack in which The Kid carries her books to school bears the smiling mugs of five British boys. So does a beach bag she takes swimming, and so does a t-shirt she frequently wears. Said mugs belong to a boy band known collectively as One Direction—though I keep referring to them, accidently but perhaps aptly, as “One Dimension.”
The members of One Direction (I just had to correct myself, I started typing “Dimension” again) were assembled in 2010 out of also-ran solo auditioners from the Brit TV talent show X Factor. Taken under the wing of none other than Simon Cowell, they failed to win on the show but became wildly popular anyway via social media fandom. As Cowell rather sheepishly notes in the documentary One Direction: This Is Us (which he co-produced), the boys became stars before they ever released a record.
Then they released a record, and really became stars. The movie, directed by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), gives a swift 101 course in the band’s history for those of us who were uninitiated, and a few rather touching glimpses of their “Mums” and other family members, but principally focuses on life on the road—the genuinely grueling, maybe rather exploitative tour schedule that these lads are kept on.
I’m not trying to be a dick when I say—I can’t keep these guys straight in my head. The only one I can remember is the one The Kid likes, Zayn (“the mysterious one”). The other four—Harry (“the charming one”), Niall (“the cute one”), Louis (“the funny one”) and Liam (“the sensible one”; how bad does that suck as a signature trait?)—just sort of blur together in my mind.
The same goes for their music. A couple of music critics are heard in the movie, claiming that One Direction’s sound is “anarchic” and has “a bit of an edge.” This, I guess, is why I couldn’t make it as a music critic, because I sure can’t hear it.
Most of their songs sound, to me, neither good nor offensively bad. They’re just cheery, weightless, badly-rhymed pop that flatters little girls—a couple of fans astutely observe that One Direction says the things the boys they know never say. But even by boy band standards, it’s thin stuff. To call it “bubble gum” would be to insult the nutritional properties of bubble gum.
All that said, as a movie the fast-paced One Direction: This Is Us is pretty watchable. Spurlock employs some clever asides—like a German scientist explaining what happens in the brains of young girls when they hear the music—but mostly he mixes tricked-out concert footage with generous helpings of the lads blowing off steam behind the scenes, tussling and roughhousing like the guys in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Most of them seem to come from working-class backgrounds, and I found it hard not to wish them well, even though the One Direction they’re aimed is, of course, straight at the pocketbooks of little girls.
I think the sweetest moment may be when the five are sitting around a campfire, and one of them imagines mothers in the future telling their daughters about how One Direction was the popular boy band in their day. It’s probably healthy that these guys start thinking about their current situation as temporary, before one of them becomes a big star and the rest become bitter and/or relieved to be out of the limelight.