This week I saw the new Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years and the 2013 One Direction documentary This is Us. Dare I mention The Beatles (known as musical innovators, the inventors of pop music, cultural icons) and One Direction (known as mere money making marionettes for cultural Beelzebub Simon Cowell) in the same sentence? By now the flaming torches have been lit, the pitchforks sharpened, and a digital snob mob is headed my way, but hang on. Let me explain myself. There are more similarities between the two bands and their documentaries than you might think.
Eight Days a Week and This Is Us both focus on touring. For Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) it was a deliberate decision to focus on a less documented period of Beatles history. For Morgan Spurlock (best known for his documentary Supersize Me) it was a necessity. At the time of the film, One Direction hadn’t done anything but tour.
I’m not particularly bothered about One Direction’s music. I am a 22-year-old guy. It’s not made for me. I am largely unaware of it. One Direction are like serial killers – I’m not a big fan of their work, but I am interested in them as a phenomenon. I’ve grown up in a musical landscape where there wasn’t one artist or genre that became the sound of the generation. There are no bands that a whole city will turn out to see. There are no musicians whose lives are sound-tracked by the screams of the world’s entire teenage population. One Direction are the closest we’ve got.
No matter how disparaging their detractors are, it can’t be denied that the squeaky clean eternal teens are a big deal. The footage from their concerts proves that. The definition is higher, the clothes duller, and there’s no sign of police brutality, but otherwise the frenzied hysteria of the audience footage from This is Us and Eight Days a Week could be the same film.
Despite 1D’s closely controlled image, Spurlock managed to include some damning scenes in This Is Us. When the band go home to visit their families, tearful parents tell the camera that they’ve barely spent any time with their children since they went off to their X-Factor auditions four years ago. 1D fans may see this as tireless dedication to their beloved directioners, but the footage paints Cowell and co. as cradle snatchers who have deprived these children of their teens. Their formative years have been spent apart from their peers, forced to adhere to a relentless touring schedule, learning dances that they are completely disinterested in, whilst also recording as they tour. It makes me wonder: is there a lost This Is Us director’s cut that cuts through the thick veil of sanitation draped over the band? The Beatles had a very similar experience – pumping out an album every six months, constantly flying all over the world to play to audiences who would deafen them with their screeching, recording new songs between tour dates. They compared themselves to hothouse rhubarb, forced to grow up too quickly.
Eight Days a Week doesn’t idolise or airbrush the Beatles. It shows the incredible international hype surrounding them from the perspective of the band themselves; lacking in ego, thrilled yet slightly bemused by the effect they had on people, and always keen to have fun. This Is Us similarly humanises the boy band brand ambassadors as they interact with each other. The camaraderie is what keeps both bands from going insane, and makes them endearing documentary subjects. Eight Days a Week shows The Beatles charmingly cheeky sense of humour in front of the conservative media, while This Is Us shows One Direction playing up around their burly minders, attempting to escape their mandated rehearsal schedule like kids trying to skip class.
The biggest differences between the subjects are talent and control. The Beatles didn’t realise that they had both, One Direction don’t realise that they have neither. In a sinister casting call, Cowell selected them as the squeaky, spotty X-Factor teens who, if thoroughly remodelled by stylists, would be the most attractive to tweenage girls. He asked himself: what would a 12 year old girl find sexy? And he got it completely right.
The bands shown in the two documentaries are surprisingly similar, but their futures couldn’t be more different. The Beatles made history, they will be remembered a hundred years from now, their songs will be given the same reverence as past masters and classical composers. Will One Direction quickly fade, following the tragic trajectory of S-Club 3’s recent tour of Student Unions, or enter the world of psychosis and addiction of child stars like Corey Feldman and McCauley Culkin? In Eight Days a Week The Beatles reach the end of their tether and are unable to continue performing live. They retreat to the safety of the studio and record one of the most iconic albums in history: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Will One Direction will be cast aside, empty husks with nothing in common with their peers, no writing credits or royalties, no experience of song writing, and no way to recapture careers that peaked when they were 19?
In a particularly candid scene, the unfab five are sitting around a camp fire discussing what their lives will be like after One Direction ends. They know they have a shelf life, but they also think that they’ll be able to lead normal lives when their 15 minutes is up.
The chances are near non-existent, but in ten years’ time I want to be in the cinema watching One Direction: That Wasn’t Us. The tale of a cash cow milked until raw and empty, taking its pain and confusion into a recording studio and creating the millennial Sgt. Pepper’s.
My sincere good luck to One Direction, they’re going to need it.