Justin Bieber sports tattoo sleeves and the barest hint of emerging down on his lip.
The Canadian superstar is a money machine—the head of a multimillion dollar enterprise based on his name, his talent, his chiseled abs, his baby-brown eyes. He's surrounded by the best that money can buy, with Usher, Jon Chu, will.i.am and Ludacris all appearing in supporting roles in Justin Bieber's Believe. He is beset by a legion of adoring, sometimes crushing fans, pursued by a scandal-hungry press, dogged by the expectations of thousands of pundits and critics who analyze and question his every move.
And he's just 19 years old.
In the 21st century—an age in which 18-year-olds can go to war but many 25-year-olds are still living with their parents—Bieber may be pop culture's ultimate man-boy, a pinup idol technically too young to drink, but too rich and powerful to be stopped should he want to. He is a multiplatinum star whose stage shows are filled with adult posturing and crotch-grabbing. And yet, the guy feels like a kid, too. Each of his moves seems too bold by half, each sung or spoken statement hides a whispered question: Am I good? Do you like me? Am I doing what you want?
These are the questions that make Believe a more compelling movie than it has any real right to be.
From Boy Next Door to That Guy From Around the Corner
To Bieber's adoring fans, this is a 3-D love letter that reads much as his songs do: It's occasionally intimate, often heartfelt, always warm. And as Bieber grows older, it's laced with a sexuality that'd make an earlier YouTube-era Bieber blush.
Oh, he still clings to vestiges of his swoop-haired innocence. When he climbs aboard a platform on a crane which'll shortly lift him over his delirious fans, he feigns as if he almost forgot to fasten a safety harness around his middle. He lifts up his wifebeater to reveal his well-documented abs, and the decibel level in the stadium rises threefold. "You guys like safety?" he says with an all-too-innocent smile.
But his over-18 stage persona, with its oft-shirtless appearances and sultry numbers and even more sultry female backup dancers, shows that both he and his fans are growing up fast—and neither are interested anymore in just holding hands.
That stage show serves up Bieber's 2012 album Believe, which also took some strides toward the risqué. We hear him sing such songs as "Beauty and the Beat" (which boasts an uncensored "b‑‑ch" from guest rapper Nicki Minaj), his sultry, ubiquitous single "Boyfriend," along with a litany of other songs (from that album and others). The music and images are designed to give Bieber (as our reviewer Adam Holz aptly pointed out in in his review of "Boyfriend") a more "dangerous" persona. He's not the pretty boy next door anymore, but rather the grinning guy who might sneak out with your daughter after curfew. (And given the level of devotion shown by Bieber's fans—one of whom says, quite sincerely, "I live for Bieber"—that's a fairly frightening thought.)
Do the Pants Make the Man?
But Believe is out to assuage fans, parents and critics too—to show that underneath Bieber's increasingly sexy and problematic exterior there's still a boy who's struggling to grow up, and a softie who just loves to sing and hang with his peeps.
The concert film showcases Bieber's sweet relationship with 6-year-old Avalanna, a very sick girl who ultimately dies. The singer tears up when he talks about her passing: "I miss her, bro," he says before someone hands him a tissue. And we see vestiges of Bieber's spiritual upbringing, particularly when he refers to a "higher power" and participates in backstage prayers before a show. (On the flip side of the spiritual thing, we hear fans flippantly say about a dozen OMGs.)
Believe doesn't minimize Bieber's shaky transition into adulthood, and it takes some of the singer's more embarrassing moments in the tabloids head on. It replays an expletive-filled confrontation he had with British paparazzi (with the obvious f-words getting censored). And several of Bieber's confederates talk about the risks and pressures that come with growing up in the public eye.
"You're the perfect candidate to become a train wreck," director Jon Chu tells him. But Bieber insists it won't happen to him. I'm too grounded, he says, pointing back to how he grew up—going to Sunday school every week. He praises his mother, saying, "She doesn't agree with some of the decisions I've made, [but] she did a wonderful job [raising me], and I'm so grateful to her."
Even Bieber's ever-sagging pants are turned into a message here. He says he started wearing them baggy because of advice by former stylist Ryan Good. "Don't let the pants wear you," Bieber recalls Good telling him, "Wear the pants."
But Good counters his own advice by telling Justin that his own saggy pants have slipped to his ankles in bookstores before. "When they're on the ground, bro, no one's wearing them," he says.
Believe acknowledges that Bieber has dropped his pants on occasion (if the tabloids can be believed, sometimes literally). That he has made mistakes. But the movie asks fans and critics alike to give the guy a break: It doesn't want us to just believe he's a bona fide talent, but to also believe that there's a good man underneath the troubled teen idol facade, a good man who will reveal himself fully in time.
Looking for Something (and Somebody) to Believe In
Of course, one cannot take Justin Bieber's Believe at its 90-minute word. One cannot take the measure of a man—or man-boy—in the confines of a movie theater, no more than one can take his measure in a handful of tabloid headlines. The human heart is too complex and contradictory for that sort of shorthand. No one can sit and say from afar exactly who Justin Bieber is, how he acts and where his heart is at.
So while I'm not inclined to give Bieber's lucrative and increasingly problematic entertainment products much of a pass—this movie does indeed need to be approached with caution—I do like what Believe says. Because in some significant ways Mr. Bieber, in all his contradictions and imperfections, is an extension of us all.
"Train wreck" is an odd cliché to connect with wayward celebrities. Or with anyone, really. See, when trains wreck, the trip is done. By definition, the locomotive and all its trailing cars stop moving all at once by way of one cataclysmic error. But in real life, the wreck is more often cumulative and ongoing. Even when things "go off the rails," as it's said, the human train keeps moving forward. Barring something truly terrible, we keep living through all the carnage.
It seems that the trajectory of our lives are more like … well, a concert tour. Each day we make another stop. Each day we have another opportunity to connect with people and use the gifts God has given us. Each day gives us a chance to succeed or fail, whether the paparazzi follow us or not. And even when we fail spectacularly—as Bieber arguably has already and may again—tomorrow and the next day and the day after that gives us a chance at redemption.
Braun admits that sometimes he and Bieber butt heads. That they can scream at each other in frustration. And he acknowledges that working with a growing, maturing Bieber is tough.
"We're doing to keep going through these struggles," Braun says. "But in the end, he's worth it."
That's what God says about every one of us, really. We make mistakes. We make a mess out of things. We can come close to destroying ourselves. But God never gives up on us, even when we ferociously frustrate Him. Because we're worth it. Every single one of us. That's something I really do believe.