Like many, I got a crick in my neck when I heard the news that Morgan Spurlock, director of Super Size Me and CNN’s new series, Inside Man, was directing One Direction: This is Us. The documentary, which comes out at the end of the summer, is about One Direction, the current “it” boy band, and I’m pretty sure we can all agree to characterize the film as a self-produced extension of the marketing and selling of a zillion-dollar moneymaker.
I’m a fan of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, so I’m not criticizing the self-promotional rock doc form. It has its charms. The wide shots of screaming fans, close-up interviews of the same tearful fans, snappy concert sequences, and wow-they’re-real-people! backstage hi-jinks are conventions that can be pleasing at best, and victimless crimes at worst.
Spurlock has shown his commercial instincts, but it’s still a surprise to see him putting his name on such synthetic fluff. But maybe not.
Consider that the legendary D A Pennebaker (of Primary, Don’t Look Back and War Room fame) joined partners Chris Hegedus and David Dawkins to make 101, about the 80s synth band Depeche Mode*. “We didn’t know who they were or anything about them,” Pennebaker told Sam Adams at the A.V. Club. Talk about a lack of connection to your subject! The truth is, there’s a tradition of documentary filmmakers taking radical turns away from serious fare toward the fluff stuff. (Yes, that’s Albert Maysles with a directing credit on Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit 92’!)
This month, it’s less of a leap, but Lucy Walker is taking on the culture of snowboarding with her new documentary, The Crash Reel, which puts her in a very different realm than her previous work (The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, an Oscar-nominated meditation on Japan’s coping with its recent disaster, Waste Land, another Oscar nominee about a Brazilian artist-populist from the slums of Brazil, and other more somber fare.) The Crash Reel focuses on serious stuff, the brain trauma suffered by snowboarding champ Kevin Pearce, and his rehabilitation, but there’s plenty of feel-good, “Dude, let’s rip!” footage, that represents a shift for Walker.
Even more of a jump was when Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern (The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback) went from a wrongful imprisonments and genocide in the Sudan to Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work! I know Stern had a personal connection to Rivers, but it still must have been a shock for the filmmakers when the stakes were not so high and the setting so much more comfortable.
Of course, the simple explanation to this all is that many directors take such turns for the money. But they also do it to keep working, and because, as I recall Sundberg once telling me, they are not just one-note filmmakers. They have varied interests and they are always looking for new challenges.
So, I can’t begrudge Spurlock for getting hired for One Direction: This is Us. (I’m sure there are enough directors out there who groused about how he’s not wanting for work and he got such a plumb gig.) In fact, I’m impressed that the producers didn’t just hire any schlub to turn out their promotional fare, and instead got a director who brings his own signature and style. They wanted a name director.
I’m not promising I’m going to see One Direction: This is Us, but I am curious — almost as curious as I am about Spurlock’s fee. What do you think? In the low, mid-six figures range?
But enough about money. Let’s hope for the enrichment of Spurlock’s sensibilities akin to what Pennebaker had to say about Depeche Mode; “the music made no sense to us at all in the beginning — we couldn’t even hear it — but by the end of it, of course, we loved it. When you live with something you get to like it.”
*Doc Soup Man was once a die-hard Depeche Mode fan, and jumped the stage to dance with the band at Radio City Music Hall in the late 80s.