Morgan Spurlock is one of very few documentarians who seem to find constant work. (Others include Alex Gibney, who must have struck Oscar gold with Taxi to the Dark Side, and obviously, Michael Moore.) With his sizable skill, Spurlock has benefited from his onscreen charisma, which he exploited with a starring role, a la Moore, in his breakout, Supersize Me. Spurlock the star became so sympathetic that we care about his decay, while eating nothing but shitty-sweet American fast food over a month, even if the result wasn’t news for thoughtful viewers.
The film made him an unlikely superstar who dedicated a 2011 project, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, to brand consciousness and how it molds the film industry. In a 2011 editorial, FilmInt editor-in chief Daniel Lindvall notes how Spurlock had recycled his earlier work here, and thus became Brand Spurlock. Spurlock must have learned quite a bit about brand making, now that he’s released a feature-length work of sales promotion, One Direction: This is Us. That Spurlock is happy to be credited as producer, with his name alongside the reptilian Simon Cowell, indicates the biggest stunt of his career. He has occupied both sides of manufacturing, first as the engine of expose, and now as a wide-eyed, willing participant.
In One Direction, Spurlock celebrates the eponymous British-Irish boy b(r)and. Their story of losing two X Factor competitions yields to another form of instant stardom, via a Twitter craze. Such territory isn’t always fodder for cynicism, since one of the original manufactured bands, The Monkees, served as a knowing parody of fandom, thanks to the charm of the hired (mostly) non-musicians, and the wit of the TV series creator Bob Rafelson and a pre-stardom Jack Nicholson, as writer.
A creator of today’s fandom is Simon Cowell, who possesses the eerie power to have former girlfriend/has-been model Carmen Electra appear as vocalist at recent televised events. The X Factor creator brought five contestants together into a boy band that, as he predicted, became a smash. In the film, Spurlock frames a talking-head Cowell as godlike. He’s seated at a desk, with a bizarre focus effect that implies him to be very much of this world, but beyond it – essentially, not unlike Leni Riefenstahl’s framing of Hitler at the Nuremberg rally podium.
Like the film, the band’s catchy name and even catchier logo doesn’t hide an anxiety to manufacture success. Spurlock depicts the members as young innocents, just what the powers behind them want all those tween girls to buy. He includes excessive footage of them fooling around at moments of obligation, to suggest that youth is independent from their influence. According to Spurlock, they’re not at all tempted by their new fame and fortune. And the film never – not once – shows them with women, besides the obligatory, sterile fan meet-and-greets. In its fictionalization, One Direction owes much to Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which plays like a slice of the Beatles dream life (more the viewer’s dream than the band’s). Spurlock’s aim for actuality is downright deceptive.
Even with The Greatest Movie behind him, this hackwork and paycheck should have gone to another director, though he really is just a product of his time. In the current cross-promotion-crazy pop milieu, next on the horizon is a bizarre film project coming from the corporation known as Metallica. The band associated to it, judging from their recent music and the documentary, Some Kind of Monster, should have ended long ago. Through the upcoming Metallica: Through the Never, a 3D feature, the band aims to cross-promote itself with a story about a band roadie who, while running an errand, encounters wrath on horseback, seemingly ripped from Ralph Ellison’s Ras the Exhorter and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. While not known for guest appearances in their music, Metallica is now guilty of capitalization like the shameless pop singer guesting for pop singer, ad nauseam. Like One Direction, Metallica is selling itself through the never of taste. Regretfully, It is Us.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.