Louis Tomlinson peered out from behind the door of a hotel suite and aimed a toy Nerf gun down a hallway full of hulking bodyguards. The 21-year-old and his four One Direction bandmates had been cooped up on the second floor of the W Los Angeles all day, doing interview after interview to promote their set of singing Hasbro dolls (retail price: $29.99 per dude), and he was eyeing his escape route.
Suddenly, he made a break for it, firing foam bullets and running down the corridor. The security men looked on, expressionless. A publicist for the boy band's record label intercepted Tomlinson before he got too far. "Listen, man, we've gotta finish these interviews if you want to get out of here," the handler advised.
Tomlinson begrudgingly relented, rejoining Harry Styles, 19, Zayn Malik, 20, Niall Horan, 19, and Liam Payne, 19, in the room, sitting in front of a promotional banner with the toy company's logo. Each young man clutched his own miniature plastic replica. Their packed schedule — they were in town not only to plug the dolls but also to perform four sold-out shows at Staples Center ahead of the release of their new 3-D concert film, "One Direction: This Is Us" — had left them punchy and unfocused.
Instead of responding to questions, they engaged in side conversations with one another and repeatedly pressed the belly buttons of their dolls, causing 30 seconds of the single "What Makes You Beautiful" to echo from the figurines. "Sometimes it can be like herding cats," acknowledged Morgan Spurlock, the Oscar-nominated documentarian who spent most of the first half of the year filming the band. "But that's part of what I love about them — they're having fun every day."
Fun is the big theme in "This Is Us," which arrives in theaters Friday and follows One Direction as it globe-trots from Japan to Mexico to sing for millions of its adoring, predominantly female fans. After Simon Cowell put the five young men together to compete as a boy band on Britain's "The X Factor" in 2010, the group became a near-overnight phenomenon. One Direction has sold 32 million records worldwide and in February embarked on a 150-date world tour that will run until November. The band has its own bedding line, book, beauty product collection, fragrance and — of course — dolls, of which there have already been two previous incarnations.
"We're going to start sending the dolls to do all of our promotion," Styles said with a grin.
Spurlock may not have been the most obvious choice for a One Direction film, given his skeptical eye for products of questionable quality engineered up for the masses by powerful corporate entities. In 2004, he starred in the documentary "Super Size Me," eating nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days and subsequently seeing his blood pressure, cholesterol and waist line surge. His other films have investigated product placement in movies and the commercialization of Christmas.
"I think a lot of people were like, 'Why is he making this film?'" the filmmaker said by telephone. "But to get to be a fly on the wall while one of the biggest bands in the world was going through such an important time was incredibly exciting."
Although Spurlock said he didn't pull any punches — "there was never anything that was off-limits — like, 'We don't talk about this, or we don't shoot this,'" he said — the film seems carefully crafted from 936 hours of footage to maintain the group's family-friendly image. Spurlock did not have final cut on the $10-million production, being released by Sony Pictures' TriStar label.
All five members are of legal drinking age in England, for example, but they are never shown taking a sip of alcohol. Even though Tomlinson and Malik were in serious relationships during production — Malik actually proposed to his girlfriend, Little Mix's Perrie Edwards, this month — their significant others are not mentioned. And there is certainly no inclusion of Taylor Swift, who had a very public breakup with Styles just weeks before shooting began. ("It's not important to the fans," Spurlock said dismissively of the "Haylor" relationship. "They just want to know more about him.")
"A lot of our free time, obviously, we spent with our girlfriends, and we wouldn't bring the camera with us in our free time with our girlfriends because that would be weird," Tomlinson reasoned. Instead, Styles said, the group wanted to show its fans "more of what happens day to day — less drama and more kind of following us around."
According to the documentary, this is how the members of One Direction spend their time: They zip around on Segways and golf carts backstage before their shows to let off steam. They talk a lot about how fantastic their fans are and how much better it is to be in a band than to be a solo act. They go on camping trips together in Sweden and sit around the campfire, reflecting on their celebrity. (Spurlock admitted he helped stage that jaunt, where the guys had to be flown via helicopter to a remote part of a forest outside Stockholm to avoid crazed females.)
But it is the parents of One Direction members who actually help to reveal the most about the band. Malik, whose family has long battled financial woes, is shown purchasing a home for his mother as she thanks him through tears. Payne's father laments that he's never gotten to take his son out for a "beer and a snooker" game, since his son has essentially not been home for the last three years.
"That was quite sad for us to see, because obviously, we've never heard our parents' side of things when they're just at home and we're off on tour doing these mad things," said the younger Payne. "I cried, like straight up. It's quite sad to hear, like. It feels like he's missed out on something."
Still, "This Is Us"contains much less behind-the-scenes humanity than last summer's "Katy Perry: Part of Me," a film that didn't shy away from the pop star's personal struggles. In one particularly memorable scene, Perry is so distraught over her impending divorce from Russell Brand that she is barely able to stop sobbing before she has to get onstage for a show.
Dan Cutforth, co-director of the Perry film, noted that Directioners are decidedly younger than KatyCats and that they may not enjoy watching their idols warts-and-all.
"One Direction has a really interesting story and [its members] are charismatic kids, but I question whether their audience wants to see a searing expose of what life is like on the road for those guys," said Cutforth, who also produced 2011's "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never." "They want it to be more fun. I honestly don't know whether the fans want to believe that their heroes have girlfriends."
As with most concert documentaries, "Part of Me" was inexpensive to produce — but it didn't do major business at the box office, grossing $32.4 million worldwide. Bieber's film, meanwhile, was a huge success, raking in close to $100 million in global ticket sales. "This Is Us" is poised to split the difference, set to launch with a healthy $22 million over the Labor Day holiday weekend.
Jon Chu, who filmed "Never Say Never" in 2010 when Bieber was 16, agreed that a movie on the singer now that he's older would likely be more challenging to do in any kind of honest way while still satisfying the target audience of adoring fans. "He was young and everything was fun," Chu said of Bieber, who in recent months has made headlines for cavorting with Selena Gomez, racing his sports car around his gated Calabasas community and urinating in public. "After a show, he'd go and play video games. There were no groupies around. He was with his mom.
"Bieber's fans wanted proof to their friends of why they were obsessed with this guy. They wanted to say, 'Mom, Dad: I know you don't understand this, but just watch this movie and then you'll get it.' If we could make something that got parents to be like, 'We do like this guy,' they would go full force for us and help get their kids to the theaters."