One Direction’s documentary movie This Is Us comes out today (August 30). Or should it be called This Isn’t Us? Some reviews of the film have highlighted how squeaky clean the boyband are portrayed, and challenged just how accurate a portrayal it is of life on the road with one of the acts bands in the world. There were more than a few raised eyebrows when it was confirmed that Morgan Spurlock – the director whose made truth-foraging documentaries about McDonalds and Osama Bin Laden in the past – might actually make something more than a just a 90-minute glorified 3D advert for the group. So what made Spurlock want to get into bed with the most manufactured band in music? And why did he tell half the story? I spoke to the director to find out.
Are you a fan of One Direction?
I am now. I’ve been to 35-plus One Direction concerts. You can’t go to 35 shows and not be a fan. Well, you could but it would be infinitely more difficult.
What attracted you to the project?
As a documentary film-maker it’s an exciting opportunity to make a movie of this scope and this scale with technology and resources that you would normally never get to have as a documentary film maker.
How much was the budget?
It was over 10 (million).
A word that gets bandied around in the film is Beatlemania, do you think it’s a fair comparison?
It’s the closest thing in my lifetime that I’ve ever seen to what I imagine Beatlemania was.
In terms of the fandom, definitely. In terms of the music, you have to wait and see. They’ve done two albums; we’ll have to wait and see what happens. If you go back to the early Beatles albums there was a lot of gushy love songs, a lot of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’.
I was on the road with them when they were recording the third album, which is remarkable, the fact that they were recording in hotel rooms with mattresses around at the end of the night, but they would be recording and I’d be filming and I’d think, ‘God, that’s a good song – I would buy that song’. What’s happened from the first album to the second album is they’ve matured up their sound. The question is can they keep doing that, maintain the popularity in their fanbase and age up their audience? When I first met them in June of last year, it was packed with 11 to 17 year-old girls. Then they kicked off their tour at the O2 and suddenly there was this massive contingent of 18 to 34 year-old women that had suddenly showed up.
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Were you tempted to educate them with a few well-chosen albums?
Like, yeah, here, listen to this album? Nah.
What do you make of the brewing storm over ‘Best Song Ever’? They’ve been accused of ripping off The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’…
I mean, if you listen to ‘Live While You’re Young’, it sounds like ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’. They haven’t been sued by anybody yet.
The fans thought The Who were trying to get the song banned, and set on Pete Townshend en masse.
Wow, that’s a horde you don’t want descending on you – as you will attest.
I think you either create a sample or you get a soundalike. It happens all the time in music. Robin Thicke is dealing with it right now – he’s pre-emptively sued Marvin Gaye’s estate to prevent a lawsuit over Blurred Lines. There’s plenty of people using already successful songs to create beds within music. I think Puff Daddy invented it.
You sound like a 1D apologist.
I am a realist when it becomes to what people love to blame the demise of music on. When people say pop music has destroyed the music business, I think Napster and digital music destroyed the music business. There’s still great music out there.
Who approached who?
I was approached by the studio but I had to pitch. They maybe reached out to a dozen other people who they thought might be good for the movie.
Did you witness any Bieber meltdown moments from 1D?
No. It would have been amazing. They’re incredibly self aware and normal.
That’s one of the reasons why 1D has managed not to have a Bieber-esque moment, because each of these guys has four other guys to keep him in check all the time. So I think the fact that they’re not going down this road alone means a lot. It enables you to have somebody there to decompress on, to vent to, who knows what the fuck’s going on in your brain, who knows exactly what you’re dealing with. Nobody knows what Bieber is dealing with and he has nobody to talk to. These guys have four each.
The message you get from the film is that they’re incredibly sweet, nice, funny boys.
But is that the full story? Even some fans have said they’d like to see a dark side. Where is it?
Yeah. I think people would love for them to be naked and strung out and hanging from a flagpole, but it’s just not happening.
There are no girlfriends in the film. Did Simon Cowell’s SYCO demand that?
I made that a point on purpose, to avoid relationships. Some of the guys are in serious relationships; Liam was in a relationship when we started shooting and in the middle of shooting broke up with her. And I said, Well, that’s exactly why I didn’t want relationships in here.
You’re not in this film at all, which is atypical of your films.
I was around, I was there while this was shooting so you’ll see them talking off camera to me. For me the film was never about me or my involvement in the movie – it was all about them. One of the reasons I got the film in the beginning was because of the last film I made, ComicCon, which I wasn’t in one frame of. Sony saw that and were like, Holy shit, he CAN make a movie that doesn’t have his ugly face in it. It’s a miracle!
Before this film, I’d made a lot of films about really unpopular things that were popular. I made unpopular subjects popular, because the films hit beyond a typical documentary audience. I think that’s what was attractive to them. You know; if I can make something unpopular popular, what about something that already is popular?
What if it had the opposite effect?
The question is, you already have a fanbase. How can you make something that goes beyond that? What I think this film does a great job of doing, what I’m really proud of, is we’ve made a film that fans will like.
It feels like it’s all for the fans.
I disagree. You said you enjoyed it – as a non-fan, you just proved my point. It’s an enjoyable film because these guys are incredibly charismatic and charming and that comes across in the film.
You could have made a completely different film.
I could have made seven different films – we shot 960 hours of footage.
Because your name is attached, I expected something different: something that questions the nature of fame, the effect of all that adulation, the mania of the fans…
I feel like there’s a film to be made about fame and fandom. But I think these guys haven’t been affected by fame in that way – they’re dealing with it.
They talk about the fact that it’s not always enjoyable, there are parts of it they don’t like. When they get trapped in the Nike store by fans you see the downside of not really being able to go anywhere and becoming a prisoner in the midst of the success. But I think that they deal with it incredibly well. There’s a film like that to be made about someone else.
Perhaps you should make that film about Bieber?
You’ve hit out against corporations and corporate culture before, but 1D are a corporate pop band. It opens with the Syco name. It’s an endorsed product.
I feel that any time you see something done by a studio it’s an endorsed product.
Syco doesn’t manage the band – they just put out the music. For me when I look at this film, I think the way that it explores what they’re dealing with and where they are, it’s the story to tell. I don’t think these guys are the murderers of music or the demons that have destroyed art. They didn’t kill the radio star.
They’re as a aggressively marketed product as a Big Mac.
Right. But here’s the thing. There’s a scene wished I could have put in the film. People think that there’s somebody behind the curtain pulling the strings, like a Simon Cowell who is this Oz-like svengali saying, ‘Dance, monkeys! You do what I say’. Maybe in the beginning as they were trying to figure out what the band was going to be there was more of this; I don’t know. What happens now is these five guys literally decide the fate of everything that happens with the band. They vote, they have a meeting, they vote on everything that happens: are we going to do stadiums, are we going to do matinee, are we going to endorse this product, are we going to have this person sponsor the tour. These guys vote on everything that happens. There’s a little democracy of the five of them, and that’s an incredible thing to see. It dispels a lot of the ideas of the factory nature of what the band is, but we just couldn’t make that scene fit in the film. It’s amazing to see that.
The songs are written for them. A scientist in the film talks about the psychological effect they have on the fans. It’s all designed to have an effect.
But here’s the question: if that’s the way it is, then why aren’t there more successful boy bands? Manufacture another 20 and see how far you get. Make 20 more and we’ll see.
Why do you think the fans are so intense?
I was trying to think which boybands were around when I was younger. New Kids On The Block, just about. I don’t remember people taking posters to concerts, writing things on their face, camping out to see them. It’s gone to a whole new level.
I think Twitter and the internet has created this unifying force of fans where people can connect with everybody immediately. You love this thing; here’s everybody else who loves that thing. With Twitter, where you can follow whoever you want and track where they are, that takes it to a whole nother place.
Do the band ever get frightened by them?
I don’t think they do. They have security. They always have help. I felt more concerned for the fans. The bus is pulling out and they’re literally sprinting after the bus. I’m thinking, they’re going to get run over. They’re not thinking at that point. They’re so juiced up on love and passion and seeing their idols they’re not even thinking.
NME had a run-in with One Direction fans when they were voted Worst Band (and Harry Styles Villain Of The Year) by readers at this year’s NME Awards. One of them threatened to strangle me with my own intestines – and she was one of the nice ones. Do the boys know about their followers’ psychopathic tendencies?
I’m sure they must have seen some of the stuff, especially after the GQ stuff came out. I didn’t talk to them about it so I don’t know.
Are you worried about them coming after you?
You can’t please everybody. I’ve made a career out of making people unhappy so I’m not worried. Sometimes when you upset people it’s a good thing. I try to think, what might the fans be upset about, and it’s only things that might have been left out.
Some have already said they wanted to see the dark side.
I think people love to think there’s a darker side to these guys but there isn’t.
They’re teenage boys and they’re incredibly rich…
Yeah… But I think the time we were with them, the moments where they could have a drink and unwind were so few and far between… we were with them on the road and they had a show every other night. February to now they did, I think, 100 dates.