Movie Review

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

From unknown to hair icon, fueled by Web

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011

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For about half a song, “Never Say Never’’ — the new, extremely watchable, nominal documentary about dancing singer Justin Bieber — celebrates the 16-year-old’s strange, wraparound haircut. Bieber stands in front of the movie’s 3D camera and swings his bangs in slow motion, while a robust, romantic epiphany of Etta James’s “At Last’’ plays around him.

The choice is a show of sweet, classy restraint since the more obviously appropriate song is the one Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s daughter, Willow, had a massive hit with in the spring: “Whip My Hair.’’

Bieber has a Beatles’ bowl cut that swirls at a canted funhouse angle. It’s what on meteorological maps is designated as a grave high-pressure system — a hairicaine.

The movie usefully, carefully, and cogently argues that Bieber is more than his hair. He is his hoodies. He is his pop-hooks. He is his many handlers.

We’re encouraged to forget for the moment that Bieber — in his hair battle with Tom Brady, his amusing participation in a Best Buy commercial with Ozzy Osbourne, his appearance with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show’’ as part of a parody of body-swap comedies — is as famous for nothing as he is for something. He’s become a ubiquitous part of the cultural oxygen, which might make some people wish they were fish.

The movie wants us to know that Bieber came from humble North American beginnings (in Ontario, Canada), that he works hard, that he lives for his fans, that he can sing live. In that sense, the film is packaged, like recent concert extravaganzas about Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.

Yet the director, John M. Chu, has been permitted to present enough of the Bieber process and enterprise to be intriguing. It’s a vaguely like the fascinating Michael Jackson performance documentary, “This Is It.’’

The movie charts Bieber’s rather immediate ascendance from obscurity to Internet sensation to selling out Madison Square Garden in 22 minutes last year.

It explains how he wound up under the auspices, first, of Usher, then the producer and recording executive Antonio “L.A.’’ Reid. They say they saw something special in him, and the film has lots of footage to suggest what that might have been: a white tween male who could sing with reasonable soul.

The argument here is that Bieber became famous in a new way: through social media and YouTube. On Twitter, he has well more than 7 million followers, but, in a rare act of social-media politesse, he follows 107,000 people. Taylor Swift has 5 million followers and follows 49, which is about normal for celebrities. (Kanye West has more than 2 million followers and follows no one.) Who knows what this portends for his career’s longevity. But he and his people do appear sincerely bonded to their fans.

One of the movie’s many nice touches presents a swarm of clips in which Bieber’s fans sing “One Time’’ while he performs it live. The thousands of video frames become a wailing wall of adulation.

But “Bieber fever,’’ as the mania he’s inspired is called, also has a cultish tinge. During his shows he invites a concertgoer to sit on stage so he can serenade her with “One Less Lonely Girl.’’ Bieber turns 17 in a month, but he’s scarcely sexual. His dangerlessness is his appeal.

But when he sings to a fellow teenager in a packed stadium, he’s no longer a pop star or not only a pop star. He’s a televangelist pretending to heal the lame.

Wesley Morris can be reached at Twitter: wesley_morris.

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

Directed by: John M. Chu

At: Boston Common, suburbs

Running time: 105 minutes

Rated: G (not offensive, but major shrieking;

bring earplugs)

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