Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jessica Leski.
To most of us, boy bands like One Direction are bland, formulaic, mass produced cheesy groups that appeal to teenaged girls attracted more by their pretty looks than the depth of their lyrics. The mass hysteria with which hordes of obsessed, screaming fans greet their idols is a pop culture phenomenon that is extraordinary. This documentary looks at the cultural phenomenon of fandom and obsession.
I Used To Be Normal spans three generations of obsessive, tragic boyband fans, but this is also a universal coming of age story that deals with family, a sense of connection, the search for identity, love and validation. I Used To Be Normal is the sophomore feature documentary for Australian filmmaker Jessica Leski (The Ball) and it is a revealing look at a number of articulate and passionate women who have had their lives changed through their obsession with boy bands and their music. Leski spent nearly five years working on the film, and she follows four women and their unique stories.
Elif is a 16-year old from New York who is obsessed with One Direction and who openly cries while watching a video of her idols performing. The video went viral. But Elif also talks candidly about how her obsession put her at odds with her disapproving parents. She also talks about some of the hardships she faced as a teenager facing the harsher realities of life. But we also see how she has matured during the course of the filming process and is now able to rationalise her obsession more clearly.
The other three women are more mature but no less passionate about their favourite boy bands. Sadia is a 25-year old journalist from San Francisco who talks about her fondness for the Backstreet Boys and how her obsession conflicted with her conservative Muslim upbringing. But the music she grew up listening to helped shaped who she is today. Similarly, Dana is a 35-year old brand strategist from Sydney who talks about her sexuality and how her obsession with Take That, and especially its lead singer Gary Barlow, helped her become comfortable with herself. In an amusing sequence Dana also gives us a cheeky look at the essential elements that most boy bands comprise of and breaks down their usual composition. She also informs us of the intense rivalry that existed between boy band fan clubs that often brought out the nastier side of fandom.
But, as 65-year old film producer Susan reminds us, this phenomenon is not that new. She talks about her obsession with the Beatles back in the 60s when Beatlemania swept the world. She proudly displays some of her Beatles memorabilia and talks about how her obsession shaped who she is today.
This was clearly a labour of love for Leski who spent five years working on the project, which was largely self-funded. The film was also partly funded through a kickstarter campaign, and Leski received lots of videos sent to her from obsessive fans. In researching the film, she spoke to psychologists and other behavioural experts to get a handle on the nature of this obsession. She has empathy for her four chosen subjects and draws them out naturally as they share some commonality in their experiences. Leski is earnest in her approach and never condescending or patronising. This is a celebration of one of the rites of passage for teenaged girls.
Leski and her team of four cinematographers – Jason Joseffer, Simon Koladin, Eric Laplante and Cesar Salmeron – shot some 100 hours of footage over the course of the four years, and it has been shaped into the 90 minutes we see on screen by editor Johanna Scott. The film features plenty of talking head interviews, which are laced with lots of fascinating archival footage, home movie clips, and some wonderful animations.
However, some of the material became a little repetitive. I felt that this material would have been better suited as a four-part television documentary series rather than a feature film.