In 'Justin Bieber's Believe,' Jon Chu aims to look beyond stardom
By By Chris Lee
Dec 24, 2013 | 8:00 AM
Justin Bieber wasn't sure he liked what he saw.
When the petite pop prince from the Great White North first viewed a rough cut of the new documentary "Justin Bieber's Believe," he excitedly called its director Jon Chu in the middle of the night to voice concerns.
Not about the less-than-flattering aspects of the movie, like where Chu asks Bieber about him turning into a "train wreck." Or where the director, speaking off-camera, ponders if Bieber will wind up like Michael Jackson or Lindsay Lohan.
The 19-year-old superstar was hung up on a segment in which he's shown talking about being in love and experiencing heartbreak. Could Chu edit Bieber's halting answers down to more concise sound bites?
"He was, like, 'I'm umming and awwing a lot. Can you, like, clean that up?'" recalled Chu. "'It feels like I don't know what love is.' And I'm, like, 'That's awesome! That you're trying to find the right words is so great. That's why we like you.' He's, like, 'OK. I just don't want to look like an idiot.'"
With its insider's view of teenage fandom's foremost icon, "Justin Bieber's Believe" (which arrives in theaters Christmas Day) presents any number of compelling insights on its subject: as a self-starting artist shown putting pencil to loose leaf pad to write his hit 2012 single "Boyfriend." As a cheerful kid with an extensive wardrobe of harem pants who's at least self-reflective enough to admit his attempt to grow a barely there mustache is "delusional." As a man-child on the cusp of adulthood, able and willing to butt heads with his powerhouse manager Scooter Braun.
But contrary to the avalanche of tabloid reports about the star that materialize on a weekly basis — "Justin Bieber Pees Into Restaurant Mop Bucket," "Justin Bieber Goes Butt Naked With a Guitar in Leaked Photos!" — he does not seem feckless in the film. In addition to scenes of "Beatlemania"-on-steroids fan adulation and concert footage shot during his last tour, "Believe" serves to humanize a teenager who is so constantly in the public eye that he's become an abstraction.
And Chu, who directed the singer's 2011 3-D concert documentary, "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," was probably the only person who could have brought the new movie to screen. After becoming a trusted member of the star's inner circle and being contracted by Braun to stage-direct Bieber's 2012-13 "Believe" tour (a first for the filmmaker, who says he had "never directed a high school play before"), Chu initially proposed a behind-the-scenes straight-to-DVD concert movie.
As filming commenced, however, a new narrative came into focus. "He's a boy. He's a man. What is he? He doesn't know yet but he's taking control," the director said at the Hollywood-adjacent office of his production company, Chu Studios. "The idea was to show him in that vulnerable spot."
Chu, 34, pitched Braun and the singer on a new idea: a warts-and-all rockumentary.
"'I want people to know that you're normal people,'" Chu recalled telling them. "'[To Braun] You're not the puppet master and [to Bieber] you're not this douche-bag kid. I want people to know you guys the way I know you.'"
The director says he never intended to film a "fluff piece" and was granted wide creative latitude by Braun (whose platinum-plus client roster includes South Korean pop star Psy, "Call Me Maybe" singer Carly Rae Jepsen and U.K. boy band the Wanted). Toward that end, the film includes footage that will be familiar to any Belieber worth his or her salt — Bieber flying off the handle at British paparazzi last March, attempting to leap from a van to physically assault the men but being restrained by his security team.
"As a human being, rage comes out," the singer explains in "Believe." "You snap. I wanted to hit him."
Unlike "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," which was shot for $13 million and grossed an impressive $99 million worldwide, "Believe" is a much smaller scale indie production that arrives with considerably lower expectations.
Where the earlier movie was distributed by Paramount Pictures and benefited from the Hollywood studio's marketing heft, Braun, Bieber and Chu (along with R&B star Usher Raymond) bankrolled the new film's $4-million budget themselves. Distributed by Open Road Films, "Believe" will reach more than 1,000 screens in a crowded holiday movie marketplace that has it facing off against competition including Ben Stiller's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and the Martin Scorsese corruption comedy "The Wolf of Wall Street" starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Given Chu's up-close-and-personal access to pop musicdom's brightest shining light, it raises the question: Does the director think Bieber will wind up a train wreck like Lindsay Lohan or Michael Jackson?
"The movie is his answer," said Chu. "Maybe the choices haven't been made yet as to whether he'll be a train wreck or not. But there's enough evidence in his life to show he will make the right choice at some point."