A lot of people have a built-in cynicism toward teen pop, and with fairly good reason. From the Monkees to Miley Cyrus, it has been packaged and promoted like candy to a baby. Its performers are often little more than blow-dried puppets with angel faces. Yet most of us, deep down, know that even with an army of adults pulling the strings, teen pop can, on occasion, be great — an authentic explosion of bubblegum passion. Just think of the Monkees’ best songs, or the sublime swoon of the Backstreet Boys’ ”I Want It That Way,” or Hanson’s ”MMMBop,” which spent a year as the most infectious sound on the airwaves. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never may be the concert film as glorified promotional product, but it captures a genuine youthquake.
At 16 years old, Bieber is small-boned and loose-limbed, with the face of an androgynous cherub: those goo-goo eyes, that ridiculously overripe grin and windswept helmet of hair, which combine to give him the look of Hilary Swank as a junior-high jock. That mane has some of the effect that the Beatles’ moptops did: It invites tween girls in the audience to view him as both the other and as a mirror of themselves. No wonder they start squealing.
In Never Say Never, Bieber, at Madison Square Garden, bops and gyrates without any special virtuosity, but he’s got something that a lot of better dancers don’t: He communicates joy in every move. He’s also got the voice of a happy canary, and when he does a song like ”U Smile,” with its lilting, back-and-forth beat and tasty harmonic conversions, he turns the simple, gorgeous chorus (”You smile, I smile”) into a house-swaying epiphany.
Never Say Never is a concert movie intercut with what might be a full-scale Behind the Music episode. It’s jam-packed with home videos and audition tapes (there’s an astonishing clip of Bieber at 12, crooning like Michael Jackson outside the Avon Theatre in his hometown of Stratford, Ontario), plus interviews with his friends, family members, gofers, producers, bodyguards, and associates.
The film presents Bieber as an icon with an epic life story — which is a bit much. Yet his grassroots rise is fascinating. He was the first pop star to rocket to fame via YouTube, when his homemade videos caught the eye of talent manager Scooter Braun, who flew him to Atlanta. With Braun, then Usher, as his mentor, Bieber was able to sidestep the Nickelodeon/Disney Channel robo teeny-bop machine, and the film shows us just why that mattered. Playing the drums (he’s a wizard), parading his kung fu fighting moves, he’s the same boisterous, do-what-you-feel kid on stage that he was in those videos. That’s why he leaves the Mileys and Jonases in the dust.
Never Say Never does have one structural oddity: It counts down, day by day, to Bieber’s big Madison Square Garden show, but since the concert clips we see along the way are taken mostly from that show, the musical momentum doesn’t build. When he gets to MSG, it’s almost an anticlimax. Or would be, except that Bieber, performing with guests like Boyz II Men, gives every number a shot of high pizzazz. If this is what it sounds like when a new millennium goes pop, I’ll take it. B+