How Never Say Never revolutionised (and ruined) the pop star doc

The Justin Bieber concert film created a formula that streaming giants are now running into the ground.


Sydney Urbanek


It’s been 10 years since Jon M Chu’s 3D documentary Never Say Never caught viewers up on Justin Bieber’s rapid and extremely online rise to stardom. How exactly did this well-coiffed 16-year-old go from busking in small-town Canada to selling out Madison Square Garden? Chu’s film answered that question using what he called a “hyperlink” approach, connecting concert footage to scenes of Bieber’s personal life. The formula was pretty straightforward, relying heavily on home video clips that evinced early musical promise, staged ‘candid’ moments of him and his loved ones, and interviews with just about everyone in his circle.

Never Say Never was produced by the star’s team as a way to capitalise on Biebermania. (One early shopping mall appearance resulted in five hospitalisations and an arrest.) It didn’t matter that it had only been a year and nine months since the release of his debut single, or that he had yet to experience any real conflict. (Bieber HQ assembled two feature-length docs before he reached his lowest ebb, after which point it assembled a third.) What mattered was that he had fans who turned out in droves to spend a couple of hours with him.

And turn out they did. Never Say Never became the highest-grossing concert film of all time, raking in almost $100 million worldwide. It was only a week after its release that Katy Perry began her California Dreams Tour, during which time she filmed her own 3D documentary, Part of Me. Though its central conflict, a divorce, made for a more emotional film, it stuck to the Bieber formula in that it made little effort to pretend that it wasn’t pandering to fans – as opposed to, say, critics. The opening credits sequence to the next entry in the genre, One Direction: This Is Us, seemed designed to encourage in-theatre screaming as each of the band’s five members were introduced.

In 2021, these films are still making big bucks. This is partly because they double as promotion for the artists in question, generating album and ticket sales. But over the last decade, these films have migrated away from theatres and directly into viewers’ homes – first via prestige TV, then with the help of streaming giants. The likes of Netflix have spent the last few years engaged in a frenzied bidding war with rival platforms to secure the exclusive rights to various pop star docs, in the hope that fans will subscribe to their service over the competition.

Beyoncé’s three-project deal with Netflix was worth a reported $60 million; Apple TV+ paid Billie Eilish $25 million for the forthcoming The World’s a Little Blurry; and Amazon Prime paid the same amount for an as-yet-untitled Rihanna doc, also due out this year. Who knows how much Nicki Minaj, who’s already been the subject of two feature films, recently made in her deal with HBO Max. Same goes for Demi Lovato, whose Dancing with the Devil – her second YouTube-produced film – hits the platform next month.

At the same time as these films appear to be reaching critical mass, their reception among non-fans has not really improved since 2011, especially as the stars themselves have run out of ways to disguise the fact that these are only not cash-grabs but exercises in brand control. It’s telling that the best-received examples – including but not limited to Lady Gaga’s Five Foot Two, Beyoncé’s Homecoming and Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana– largely deviate from the Bieber formula, or else are less bald-faced in their stage-managing.

Still, these exceptions do not appear to have coerced streaming platforms away from the Bieber model entirely: Eilish’s doc, as well as Netflix’s recent BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky, suggest that fan power still outweighs years active in the industry when it comes to commissioning such films.

And then there’s the small matter of Shawn Mendes: In Wonder, which feels like a bizarre full-circle moment in their history. Mendes is another small-town Canadian who broke through covering others’ songs – this time on Vine, where he gained thousands of followers after posting his rendition of Bieber’s ‘As Long As You Love Me’. The closest thing the younger Canuck’s film has to a central conflict is him stretching his voice to its “breaking point” mid-tour. That just so happens to be the lone ordeal suffered by Bieber in Chu’s film.

Published 11 Feb 2021

Tags: Jon M Chu Justin Bieber Never Say Never

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