Justin Bieber in Never Say Never (Paramount Pictures)
If there was one thing that was most frustrating about watching Step Up 3
last year, whether it be the 3D version or otherwise, was the fact that there were moments that were magic about it that were almost immediately contradicted or overwhelmed. You could see that Jon Chu had latched onto something at least for a fleeting moment that was like catching lightning in a bottle but there just wasn’t quite enough in the story to propel the film past a few moments of grace and charm.
While I typically avoid any sort of comparative analysis in a review of a single film I mention this to begin the case for Never Say Never and may need to resort to it again to make a point. Chu is, in fact, the perfect candidate for this project because while prior it was like he was wringing a dry sponge here the story existed and it’s the kind of thing you can’t make up and he absolutely nailed it as far a making it a piece of narrative cinema.
Absolutely stripping away any notions you may have pre-conceived or otherwise about the music this film is quite amazing and exhilarating and that has every bit as much to do with the crafting of the film as it does with the narrative it tells.
So far as the crafting is concerned: the edit of this film great and rather impressive and, of course, it interlinks with the narrative. While the story is framed as a countdown to one show, Madison Square Garden, it is told neither chronologically nor does a majority of it take place there.
As the production team had protested for months most of the film is not a concert, hence it’s a little misleading to label it a concert film. There is footage, of course, but rarely is a full song used but what’s most incredible is that all the songs are placed perfectly just watch and listen to the tempo and the lyrics in conjunction with the flow of the film.
As much show footage as there is it doesn’t end up being about the show but about the journey but it’s not a one-sided tale. It tells things both from the perspective of Bieber and his team and with man-on-the-street interviews with his fans. So it makes sense that in a tale as someone who has been launched to astronomical heights thanks to the fervent devotion of his fans that both tales be told as they truly are one.
That is where this film truly separates itself from the other two recent teen sensation films (Miley Cyrus and The Jonas Brothers): this is a personal chronicle and the concert is not the thrust of the film but used as peaks and the big show is used as the climax. Whereas, you saw some goofy-we’re-trying-to-show-how-we’re-like-the-Beatles interstitial scenes in the Jonas Brothers film you didn’t learn anything about them or their journey. This film puts you both in the position of the performer and the audience almost simultaneously, which is quite a feat.
As if further evidence is needed that this film isn’t about the concert there is a star-studded line-up of guest performers, including Miley Cyrus herself in a duet, and it doesn’t detract or elevate things it just fits right into the mix.
It’s not a completely skewed depiction of the performer either. There is a part of the film, which propels the film towards its climax with stakes raised and plays almost like it was scripted, wherein Bieber is fighting off a throat infection and swollen vocal chords just before the MSG show, and his vocal coach asks him if he’d been straining his voice outside the performances. He, of course, responds “No” and then there is a quick montage hearkening back to a short layover he had in a hometown where he’s yelling and gallivanting with his friends that is quite funny.
Like almost anything he does, the film doesn’t take itself or its subject, too seriously and just shows things as they are. In showing him, as much as a film can in this format, as a real person there it can establish its dual connection to both performer and audience.
In the end, many quick flashes of home video and YouTube clips that started off the tale are quickly spliced into the last musical performance of the film and hint at the completion of the journey. The journey concludes in a frame wherein an anonymous user is linking their friends to his videos and hence the viral machine starts. There is also some very creative use of graphics displaying YouTube comments, tweets, subtitles and titles that also gave the film a little more cinematic leverage.
Watching this film, again based on comparison with the other two, was like being at a concert. It was virtually the same atmosphere. That alone should say something. It’s easy enough to dismiss this film as a crass money-grab if you want to but if you watch this and see it as anything less than a sincere depiction and a thank you to those who got Bieber where he is you’re not watching closely enough.
This is a film that is exciting and exhilarating cinematically if you give it an unbiased look and watch it as film, which is what it is. It’s not a concert film because there’s so much more to it than that. It’s the full story of this phenomenon about as well as it can be told. Kudos to Jon Chu and Paramount.