In person the boy band are very sweet, much like the film of their lives by Morgan Spurlock. Siobhan Synnot steps into the world of One Direction
Oceans of booze, blizzards of cocaine and music that will rattle the fillings from your teeth. You’ll only see one of these in the new behind-the-scenes boyband documentary, One Direction: This is Us.
Since 2010, when Simon Cowell whipped up a boy band from five failed X Factor hopefuls, Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson have become a surprise global phenomenon.
Interviewing One Direction, they come across as upbeat and a lot more normal and less creepy than the Jonas brothers, the chastity band-wearing troupe who kept deferring tricky questions to the youngest, a precocious and grave 15 year old. One Direction are like a basket of friendly puppies, and comfortably chip into each others’ sentences. They are all voluble, except for Malik, who tends to answer only if addressed directly. Styles is perhaps their media star, a garrulous, tousled mophead who, like Malik, seems to have more tattoos than the navy, and offers kisses to women interviewers. It’s also Styles who checks and remembers interviewers’ names, and knocks back questions about groupies by feigning horror. His wingmen are Payne and Tomlinson, with Horan the band’s mildly loose cannon (“Simon Cowell and me are homies. We roll together!”)
“Have you seen the movie,” asks Styles. “Did you like it? Did you get popcorn?” Not only have I seen their movie, I spent the weekend with their albums on my mp3 player, only deleting two phenomenally drippy Ed Sheeran ballads. The rest is crazily infectious pop, boosted by vaguely nutritious messages about self-worth being beautiful and jumping up and down all night. It’s noticeable however their anguished lovelorn yelps tend to mirror their fanbase’s experiences rather than their own. Nurtured by Twitter feeds and YouTube, the One Direction following is, frankly, terrifying. To keep the interview location secret from them, I was told to stay off social media, and when the venue was revealed it turned out to be well off the beaten track – just down from Pentonville Prison in fact. Even so, by the time I left, a cloud of girls was gravitating towards the unprepossessing warehouse. In future MI6 should skip recruiting from Oxbridge and trawl One Direction gigs instead.
In a recent Channel 4 documentary about their fervent supporters, one teen “Directioner” was asked if she would kill a cat or a dog for One Direction. She drew the line at canine slaughter, but cat-lovers would be still be appalled at her response, and the intensity of this kind of focus is surely rather overwhelming for boys aged 19-21? The band, however, is stoutly respectful. “We all think that the fans are amazing and the amount of dedication that they show is just second to none,” says Payne, who calls the documentary “a load of tripe”. The others nod solemnly in agreement. “It’s better just to ignore s*** like that. And it’s easy for us to do,” adds Styles.
According to director Morgan Spurlock, this was an access-all-areas documentary during their last world tour. “You get to go home with them, you get to go into the hotel rooms, on the bus, in their bedrooms. These are really intimate moments that I think fans will really relish,” he says.
On the face of it, 42-year-old American Spurlock is a curious choice of boy band biographer. Usually he investigates weighty issues like the location of Osama bin Laden or peels back corporate practices at multinationals like MacDonald’s, whose meals he ate for 30 days in Supersize Me. Yet, here he is in the middle of an enormous international Sony junket, paying homage to the wholesomeness of a manufactured pop group: “There’s no air of superiority, there’s no air of success that permeates this movie,” he says. “They are the same five guys they were three years ago. And I think that normalcy is what’s continued to propel them to where they are.” Spurlock had considered films on Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, but couldn’t make the schedule fit. In return, the boys admit that they used to tease Spurlock by eating burgers in front of him.
Occasionally, familiar Spurlock techniques surface, such as a sequence where a neuroscientist explains the chemical processes of a fan’s brain, when stimulated by One Direction. “They’re not crazy,” he concludes. “Just excited.”
Spurlock has made his movie with an awareness of the short attention span of these excited minds. This is Us is a restless film, zipping around the world and between concert footage, backstage pranks and home visits. It’s a film in perpetual motion, briefly alighting on emotional moments, such as Malik buying his mum a house, just long enough to register the emotional beat of a son fulfilling a childhood promise to take care of his mother. Spurlock loves this moment, but Malik looks like a recently woken faun when asked about it. “It was quite strange to film because that was the first time that I’d actually spoken to my mum about it and it was the first time she’d got into the house and stuff. But it’s an amazing thing for me because I can look back on that in 15 years’ time and watch this amazing footage of my mum going through her house for the first time.”
It’s a pretty tearful sequence, but it gets about the same amount of time as Horan disguised as a Scots roadie at one of the gigs (“One Direction are rubbish”) or Styles going back to a bakery in Cheshire where he used to work. “She used to pinch my bum when I worked here on a Saturday,” recalls Harry as he pulls one lady towards the camera. “I did,” she agrees, eagerly.
Occasionally, however, Spurlock tips his camera towards accompanying parents in the cinema. Backstage in New York, Martin Scorsese arrives to pay homage. The bespectacled director has his shy blonde daughter in tow while he cries “I love your stuff”, but Spurlock is clearly inviting older viewers to goggle at this, as if Robert De Niro had just declared himself a devotee of The Wanted.
Parents figure a lot in this film. All of the boys’ parents are interviewed, and all mention that their sons went off to try their luck on X Factor, then never came home again. Payne’s father notes that he is from a rural background, while his son has gone out and toured the world. He doesn’t think he has any advice he can pass on. On the other hand, there are no girlfriends. Though all the songs go out to some ever-changing cipher named Girl, most of the footage is of screaming young women. There’s no mention of Taylor Swift, the American singer who dated Styles for a few months then wrote a series of accusatory songs after they broke up, or of Danielle Peazer, a dancer linked with Payne. Spurlock points out that both women were long gone when he started tracking One Direction, but Malik and Little Mix bandmember Perrie Edwards are still going strong yet there’s no sign of her either. But these are victimless crimes, argues Spurlock: “There’s five stories to tell in basically 62 minutes. Twenty-eight minutes of the film is concert and 62 minutes is behind-the-scenes doc footage. So, we’re telling five stories over about 12 minutes each and there’s quite a bit of content to try and squeeze in. So, for us, it was about really telling their stories, what they were going through, the struggles that they have, how they look at and deal with fame, the relationships they still have with each other and their families. For us, that was the most important story to tell.”
One Direction: This Is Us is on general release from Thursday