One of the most striking things about the documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is that Justin Bieber is not its protagonist. In a film composed largely of first person interviews, Bieber never addresses the camera directly to reflect upon his own career – not even to provide the sort of abstracted, clichéd, content-free sentiments we are accustomed to hearing from pop icons. Most of Bieber’s dialogue consists of him responding to members of his concert team; any “private” thoughts come in the form of “tweets” flashed across the screen, all of which are already part of the public record (the role of digital and social media in this film deserves its own analysis). Although his singing voice dominates the soundtrack, he exhibits little voice in terms of directing the narrative.
The voices that emerge most strongly are those of Bieber’s handlers, most notably his vocal coach Mama Jan and manager Scooter Braun. The latter seems never to tire of yammering about what makes Bieber’s career extraordinary. When Bieber does exhibit agency, it’s within highly constrained circumstances. Rather than shaping or shifting the broader narrative, his are minor actions like lying about how often he raised (and so ruined) his voice during a break between concerts. These are the limited rebellions of a bratty teenager, and ultimately reinforce the Bieber persona the film constructs: Bieber is an ordinary teenager just like you, the audience member, are or once were.
Throughout the film, Justin Bieber is performing Justin Bieber, and this Justin Bieber is primarily an object, albeit one that sings and dances. There’s nothing new about the persona of the sexually non-threatening teen idol, but I am not sure I’ve ever seen a teen idol representation that so reminded me of classic diva texts — the tension between Bieber’s public life and private impulses, the near-constant reminders that the better part of Bieber’s identity is constructed by his fans and svengalis. The film is actually at its most compelling when presenting Bieber’s iconography, the hearts which adorn his jacket, or the legions of screaming girls dressed in Bieber’s signature colors of purple and white. Some of its most memorable images come from the camera’s almost fetishistic obsession with Bieber’s stuff – a rack of outfits getting steam cleaned by his crew, a row of matching purple sneakers, Bieber’s hand backstage, plunged into a bowl of loose, multicolored sweet tarts. There’s an eerily intimate slow-motion shot of Bieber against a plain grey backdrop, looking more like an animatronic mannequin than a human being as he whips his signature tresses, intercut with fans, family and Bieber team members gabbing about Bieber’s hair and attempting to flip their own.
On our way out of the theater, my friends Rebekah and Brandon initiated a conversation about the parts of Bieber’s life left offscreen. Has he ever truly broken down? Is he allowed to be alone? What’s the story with his family? Like what’s the deal with his dad, from whom his mother separated when Bieber was young, who appears not at all in the section of the film covering Bieber’s childhood, then reappears for a concert date before disappearing again with zero explanation? Do you think he actually is a lesbian? I mean like a transfeminine person attracted to women? …His swagger reminds me of so many young dykes I’ve known.
I enjoyed engaging this conversation, but truth be told, Bieber’s lived experiences were not what piqued my interest in the film in the first place – it was the public phenomenon of Bieber and his surface aesthetics, and in this regard, the film was 100% satisfying, if somewhat discomfiting. One thing I did learn was that Bieber possesses genuine talent. I believe it is possible to be a truly remarkable pop star with unexceptional musicality if one possesses some other, more intangible quality that for lack of a better word I’ll call charisma (Kylie Minogue is perhaps the most fully realized example of such an artist). I knew Bieber possessed this intangible quality. What I did not realize is that he is also musical. However formulaic his music may be (and I don’t really see this as a problem where pop music is concerned), he is a skilled dancer and vocalist, a competent pianist and guitar player and perhaps most surprisingly (although perhaps this is not news to his fans), a truly badass drummer. I have acquired a genuine interest in seeing how Bieber’s life and career develop.