Retiring from music. Partying hard in Vegas. Getting dumped by Selena Gomez. Barfing onstage. Abandoning a pet monkey in Germany. If the Internet is to be believed (and when has it lied to us?), this is what Justin Bieber has been up to recently. Some of it might be true, some is almost certainly false, and absolutely none of it is on display in Believe, a cheery audiovisual scrapbook of the Bieber’s 2012?2013 arena tour that gives little insight into the pop star?s off-stage life.
It?s the singer?s second concert documentary in two years, and as tends to happen with teenagers — even those who don?t routinely sing to 20,000 screaming disciples on a weeknight — Bieber has changed dramatically in that short time. The 16-year-old Canadian putto in 2011?s Never Say Never was adorable, dumbstruck by his own success, and pretty impossible not to like as he serenaded fans and shot hoops with friends back home.
The Justin Bieber of Believe, which comes out a few months shy of his 20th birthday, is a far thornier creature. He?s tattooed and muscled, with a dusky voice and the faintest wisps of hair on his upper lip. (In the movie?s most unaffected scene, Bieber pokes fun at himself for the moustache, but refuses to shave it off.) His sweatshirt-and-jeans look has been traded in for a snazzed up, 21st-century update on Don Johnson, with drop-crotch leisure suits, open-front shirts, and meticulously highlighted hair. His on-camera affect is tightly reserved, and there are no more friends on display — at least none that aren?t also on the roster of his management or creative team.
The new steeliness in Bieber?s attitude hints at the fascinating challenges that must come with teen stardom, the mix of unlimited opportunity and scarce privacy that force some to grow up fast and others to stay childlike forever. But Believe doesn?t shed much light in that direction. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on the positives: Justin?s musical collaborations, his loving friendship with a terminally ill fan, his steps toward creative autonomy. (Bieber is shown writing lyrics, improvising melodies, and directing the goofy, charming video for his 2012 hit ”Beauty and a Beat.”)
When the movie occasionally does confront its hero?s foibles, its answers are disappointingly pat. How does Bieber explain his foul-mouthed tirade at an equally foul-mouthed paparazzo? ”I wanted to know what he was saying!” And what about the possibility that he could become a Lohan-esque cautionary tale? ”I have a good head on my shoulders.” In a snippet of quasi-paranoid dialogue that plays like a mantra at the film?s beginning and end, Bieber warns us that ”when you?ve reached a certain point in your life, there are people out there waiting to see you fall.” He shouldn?t worry. They won’t get to see that — or anything else of much interest — this time around. C+