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Movie review: ‘Justin Bieber: Never Say Never’

“Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” is part concert film, part brand consolidation, something designed to function as both an introduction for the uninitiated to this pop music singing-and-dancing sensation and a keepsake totem for his ravenous, heavy-spending fans.

This division of intent never quite coheres, as the momentum of the concert sequences is broken up by lots of back story on his unlikely meteoric rise, and the concert audio is mixed so that the shrieking of Bieber’s audience often overwhelms the music.

Though there is something teasingly contemporary about Bieber and his omni-bangs — YouTube and Twitter play a big role in his origin story — there is also an undercurrent of plucky old-fashioned showbiz in the way his career is being handled, measured in record sales and concert tickets.

For all the new-media trappings, Bieber’s success was initially pushed forward by what his manager, Scooter Braun, refers to as the “hand-to-hand combat” of winning over one radio station at a time.

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Strictly as a piece of filmmaking, “Never Say Never” is a bit of a mess. Director Jon M. Chu creates an early structuring device of counting down the days to Bieber’s sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden, but then often lets that drive drop, in particular during a long biographical middle section.

Additionally, the main concert footage used throughout the film is from that show at the Garden, so building up to something at the same time it’s being shown really drains the drama from the moment.

Bieber is a mix of intuitive performer and apparent quick study. As a dancer, his style is endearingly awkward, as if the 16-year-old still has not quite figured out how his body works. When he reaches out to touch Miley Cyrus during an onstage duet — eliciting squeals of delight from the crowd — it is a move of practiced stagecraft, not an expression of emotion.

Yet beneath his polish there is still something unpracticed and a bit goofy to Bieber and his ever-present team of handlers. When a random girl is plucked night after night from the audience for him to serenade onstage, he hands her a big bouquet of roses; as he sings a solo acoustic number, he hangs over the crowd seated in a giant heart. Bieber seems to sit at some rare intersection of the newfangled and the traditional, where camera phones coexist sweetly with swooning romance.

In the film’s most disarming moment, Bieber stops in front of a young girl playing the violin on the street in his hometown. She asks if he’s Justin Bieber and he tells her he used to play guitar in that very same spot. The look of affection, surprise and swelling pride on her face shows his odd ability to make his Follow Your Dream narrative transcend its greeting-card corniness into something almost believable. Or perhaps that should be Beliebable.

calendar@latimes.com


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