The first time I saw a trailer for “Never Say Never” (the Justin Bieber movie) I thought to myself , “You have GOT to be kidding! Why on earth are they making a movie about this kid? And does it really need to be in 3D? I will NEVER see that movie.”
I must admit that I wrote it off as a pop-film whose sole purpose was to capitalize on the latest fly-by-night “manufactured” pop sensation. Let’s be honest. Chances are, you felt (or feel) the same way. And chances are, when you saw this blog post and the image you thought, “Ron must be out of his Vulcan mind!”
But I hope you will indulge me, trust that I’m in sound mind, and read on. Like me, you may be pleasantly surprised. And like me, you just may also find yourself saying, “Never say never.”
Just to clear things up, the whole reason we got the movie in the first place was to watch something the whole family could watch for a celebratory movie night. It was actually my wife’s suggestion. She had read and seen somewhere that the movie was not just some pop-corny, gimmicky 3D concert film, but actually an inspirational documentary about pursuing your dreams against all odds. My thought?”Uh…sure dear. Whatever.” But you know how sometimes your spouse (usually the wife) will say and/or do something profound and wise that the other spouse (usually the husband) will have to admit (even if under his breath) was a pretty good decision? This was one of those times.
To my pleasant surprise, the film was actually very good. Directed by Jon M. Chu (who directed “Legion of Extraordinary Dances“) the film takes you on the journey from Bieber’s discovery on YouTube (by his manager Scooter Braun, NOT by Usher as I had previously thought) to his concert at Madison Square Garden. I see that the movie only has a 1.2 out of 10 star rating on IMDb, and only a 68% (out of 100) on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m convinced that the voters on IMDb didn’t actually see the movie, and the comments by the downer critics on RT suggest that the prejudice against the teen sensation’s pop-life and music have effected their view of the film.
I like to think that being a documentary filmmaker myself with a sincere appreciation for story and the masters of filmmaking, I have a somewhat authoritative view on what is good documentary filmmaking. And personally, I think this qualifies. (I couldn’t even finish watching “Rattle and Hum” and U2 is perhaps my favorite band. I wish RnH had the heart this movie had.)
But I’ve droned on long enough about the film itself. Whether or not you can bring yourself to watch the movie, makes no difference to me. I think the lessons learned though are worthwhile.
- Social Media Works. YouTube and Twitter were key components to JB’s success. The story of his discovery on YouTube is pretty well-known. But I originally thought it was just one video that was posted and got discovered. He had actually built up a large following with LOTS of YouTube videos. He already had over 100,000 subscribers to his channel by the time Scooter Braun discovered him. And by staying connected to fans via Twitter while on the road, his prominence rose.
- Take chances. Scooter Braun took a chance on JB because he saw potential. On his own dime he flew JB and his mom down to Atlanta. During that visit, when Justin saw Usher get out of a car, against Scooter’s plea, he took a chance and went up to Usher and offered to sing for him. Usher blew him off. (In a nice way though). Sometimes as an artist, even if you know you’re going to fail, you gotta take that chance.
- You have to get your work out there. Social media alone is not going to make it for you. You have to work hard to get your art out there. Scooter took Justin in a van all over the country to visit radio stations to play his one original song at the time. They worked extremely hard to get the word out, playing the stations, malls, and small town fairs. He grew from 40-person crowds to eventually thousands. All before hitting it big with Usher and famed music exec LA Reid. As a filmmaker, this is the part of the story that connects most with me. You have to get your work out there and seen. Over and over and over. If they won’t come to you, you gotta go to them.
- Give back to those who put you where you are. Justin and his team make a point to give back to the fans. Passing out free tickets to families waiting in line; randomly selecting people in the nose-bleed seats and bringing them down to the front row; randomly picking fans for Justin to serenade on stage (you can only imagine the reaction THAT gets from the chosen ones.) Essentially, they are going above and beyond for their clients, especially their best clients.
- Rest and rejuvenate. Strained vocal chords and an infection threatened his performance at Madison Square Garden. He had to cancel a Syracuse, NY concert and get on strict rest to rejuvenate. We as artists need to do the same. You have to find the time to rest and recoup if you want your art to flourish.
- Collaborate with other artists. Justin’s concert included other artists like Usher, Ludacris, Jaden Smith, Boyz II Men and that Cyrus girl. Filmmaking by nature is a collaborative art form. When you do collaborate, do it with the best you can find. Don’t be afraid to “share the stage” with them.
- Never Say Never. When Scooter first took Justin on the road, he got a lot of “No’s” from record labels who at the time did not see the power of YouTube. If he wasn’t backed by a Disney or Nickelodeon, it wasn’t worth their time. A year and 3 days prior to Justin’s performance at Madison Square Garden, which is considered the pinnancle of success for any musician, he watched Taylor Swift on that stage and told Scooter that he believed he could do that too. And he said he could do it in a year. He was wrong…by only three days.
If you do watch the movie, do so with an open mind. It’s unfortunate they marketed it the way they did. It still did relatively well at the box office, but I think it might have done better if they marketed the human story behind the sensation. The relationship to his grand parents. The natural talent he has a musician as well as singer (he plays drums, guitar and piano and appears to be relatively self-taught). The amount of chances and work Scooter put into getting Justin out there. Regardless of how you feel about JB and the legion of swooning pre-teen and teen girls that all swear they will be Mrs. Justin Bieber some day, his story is truly inspiring. As an artist, how could I not be moved by it.
And no, I will not be checking my Man-Card in at the door thank you very much.