Written by Zac Platt.
Sure it’s easy to dismiss Justin Bieber’s Believe as nothing more than the piece of marketing fluff it is, but let’s give director Jon M. Chu the benefit of the doubt. Not only has he worked with Bieber before (on 2011’s Justin Bieber: Never Say Never), but the Step Up 2 and 3 director’s energetic music-video style arms him with the right tools to bring Bieber’s style to the cinema screen. Now, that’s all well and good for appeasing fans, but for the film to become anything other than an indulgent and cringe-worthy cash-in it comes down to one question. Can Believe humanize Bieber and present him as an empathetic or interesting character worth the audience getting invested in?
As it turns out, no. Not even close.
To Chu’s credit, his quick and flashy style adds some flair and keeps a very steady momentum. By constantly juggling different components, such as concert snippets, interview segments or snapshots of Bieber’s creative process in the studio, the film is surprisingly well-paced. Considering how painful this vanity project can be at times, it’s astounding how rarely you notice it dragging. Keeping all these balls in the air also has the added bonus of keeping your eye moving to distract you from just how empty all these moments are.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really much else to put in the plus column. You definitely get the sense that the money behind the film was a constant obstacle to Chu’s attempts at cobbling some sort of story together. Certain questions and footage seems poised at making the pop-star acknowledge his overwhelming douchebaggery, but any answer offered by him or the film is purposefully crafted to promote the Bieber brand. More often than not, the film devolves into a parade of his entourage and big music names (including a depressingly indifferent Usher, who couldn’t give a toss about being there, despite the cheque he no doubt received) who keep insisting on the star being down to earth, good-hearted, and uninterested in all the glitz and glamour surrounding his art; totally a swell guy who’s completely relatable to all you fans.
Perhaps it would be more believable if Chu could actually find any footage to back this up. Or better yet, actually getting Bieber to take an interest in his own puff-piece enough to clear some time on his schedule and become an active presence in the film. It’s amazing how absent he feels despite all the b-roll and concert footage of him playing, which is probably why Chu has such difficulty in developing any of the themes he tries to introduce. Believe feels genuinely starved for content, leaving the focus to shift from one undercooked thread to another. Is it a coming of age story? A portrayal of a good-hearted kid imprisoned by his own celebrity? A behind the scenes look at the teenage twot’s titular tour? Believe tries to have it all, and instead comes up with nothing.
The ham-fisted moments that try to add depth to Bieber’s character are easily the worst thing about this hollow exercise in milking the fans of a soon to be irrelevant celebrity. There are plenty of moments where Believe haphazardly tries to manipulate you into taking him seriously, ranging from a hilarious synchronized head nod from his enraptured entourage as Justin shares his wisdom to the interviewer, to some truly uncomfortable self-promotion over his spending time with a dying fan. In no way do I want to criticize a celebrity for doing something charitable for a sick child, but both his wearing it as a badge of honor and the crocodile-tearful capitalization of their time together (especially during a live performance) leaves a terrible taste in your mouth that won’t soon go away.
Yes, it’s an easy film to write off just for being what it is, although it’s certainly a success as a piece of marketing for indulgent fans. Infatuated tweens are sure to overlook the fact they’re being told Bieber is interesting and relatable despite being shown the exact opposite. As a film though, it’s terrible. As a documentary, even worse. Sure, it doesn’t really set out to accomplish much more than it does, but how much of a sliding scale can that really afford it? Perhaps the fairest way to measure Believe is to award Chu on just how much his bombastic design and slick cutting are able to polish this turd of a subject. But for this review, we’ll be judging it as we do any other 90 minute soulless piece of trash that demands a paying audience but offers nothing in return.
THE REEL SCORE: 3/10