One Direction: This Is Us and the power of fandom

One Direction on stage in This Is Us. From left to right: Liam, Zayn, Harry, Niall, Louis.
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Music critics may have looked down their noses at One Direction and their fans, but concert film This Is Us is a testament to the power of fans.

One band. One dream. One iconic documentary. We’re talking, of course, about One Direction: This Is Us.

Presented as “an intimate all-access look at life on the road for the global music phenomenon,” This Is Us follows One Direction from their humble beginnings and X Factor auditions to headlining Madison Square Garden and beyond. It’s the story of five boys – Harry, Liam, Louis, Niall, and Zayn who went from the bottom of the stairs to the top of the world, and the fans whose support got them there.

Released ten years ago (feel old yet?), This Is Us remains one of the highest grossing concert films of all time. It boasts over 16,000 five-star ratings on Letterboxd. Event screenings continue to pack out, with rooms full of fans singing along to beloved songs and lip-syncing along with moments of memorable dialogue. And yet, reviews published at the time of release portrayed the film as mediocre at best and at worst were just plain offensive.

Like many commercially successful acts that came before (and after) them, One Direction suffered critically for having an audience that predominantly consisted of young girls. Distressingly, their audience also suffered critically for being young girls. A now-infamous interview with the band published just a month before the film was released saw a journalist describing the fans – affectionately known as Directioners as rabid, knicker-wetting banshee(s) and discounting their opinions entirely with the flippant dismissal that “these women don’t care.

While the Serious Music Press was all too quick to slander both the band and their fans, This Is Us – like One Direction themselves acted as a safe space. Here, fans aren’t deranged or out of control. They’re having fun. They’re not unstable or irrational. They’re the driving force behind worldwide success. And guess what? Martin Scorsese is one of them. Concert footage interspersed throughout the film focuses on the fans as much as it does the band themselves. An animated map comes complete with a voiceover detailing how “in the space of months, the fans got the entire planet to support One Direction.

A particularly heart-warming moment in the movie sees Niall declare “this is why we have the best fans in the world,” before opening the nearest window and cheering along with the crowds gathered outside. A decidedly more bizarre (but no less meaningful) scene has an internationally renowned neuroscientist using science to demonstrate that “the girls are not crazy, the girls are just excited.” It’s a shame that it takes mansplaining to spell that out, but the affirmation is no less valuable because of it.

One of the most prevalent criticisms This Is Us faced is that it was made as a marketing tool and makes little attempt to stray from that formula. Behind the scenes footage filmed on One Direction’s Take Me Home tour offers, as the movie’s description promises, an intimate look at life on the road, but the group’s media image is clearly catered to.

One Direction in This Is Us.

They’re manufactured, yes, but clips of the band performing a capella shows that their talent speaks for itself, while footage filmed behind and away from the stage speaks to a chemistry that can’t be anything but genuine. They’re a boyband, but they’re not your typical boyband, as demonstrated by the ludicrous display they put on while attempting to work through choreography. They’re rebellious, hijacking a forklift backstage and mischievously ignoring instructions from the people they work with for jokes and laughs, but their character never strays far from wholesome.

Music industry professionals describe the group to camera as being “slightly anarchic” and having “a little hint of something dangerous.” Yet not a single beer is drunk nor a single argument had (unless you count Liam and Louis disputing Japan’s proximity to Australia). Combined with concert footage that largely waters down the characteristic brand of chaos now immortalised by many a fan compilation video in favour of more polished performances (something all One Direction’s concert films are guilty of), the result is a movie that largely stays within its stereotype-enforced lane.

But that isn’t necessarily a flaw. Writing about her experience of the band, novelist Samantha Hunt said that every girl makes her own One Direction.Editor and actress Tavi Gevinson expressed a similar sentiment, stating fangirling is not purely about the subject of your fandom, it’s actually almost entirely a reflection of you.”

The creators behind the film know this, and the fans are self-aware enough to know it, too. “They say what we want to hear, and no boys, no one, says to us,” one girl tells the camera. “They make us believe that everything is possible if we believe in ourselves, another enthuses. There’s nothing in these statements that actually reads as specific to One Direction. Instead, they speak directly to what fans find for themselves in something they love.

It’s in this respect that This Is Us shines. Was it made to further the band’s branding? Sure. But it does so while reflecting the enthusiasm, capability, and sheer joy of its audience. Marketed as an invitation into the boys’ lives behind-the-scenes, the film rarely dives too deeply below the surface. Where it excels is in validating the fans whose devotion made the whole thing possible.

Throughout the film, One Direction express gratitude to their audience at every turn. The most poignant instance of this occurs towards the film’s end. Gathered around a campfire, the five boys talk about what their legacy might one day add up to. Their answers don’t mention fame, success, or even any particular achievements. Instead, they discuss wanting to stay friends, and Louis voices a particularly tender hope: that the fans who love them now might sometimes look back fondly on this band that made them happy when they were young.

The story of the group who “lost The X Factor but won the world, This Is Us is more than a document of a band that outstayed the critics that dismissed them and continue to charm. It’s a celebration of what can be achieved when appreciating art unashamedly.

Better than Forrest Gump, funnier than The Hangover, and sadder than Titanic (if the Best Song Ever music video is to be believed), it might have been made for marketing purposes, but This Is Us endures as a testament to the power of fandom. Sharing excitement for something you love can bring together communities and change the world. And, obvious though this may seem, it’s also a lot of fun.

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