JUSTIN BIEBER: SEASONS (Michael D. Ratner). Four episodes premiere Monday, January 27, on YouTube Premium. New episodes Mondays and Wednesdays. Rating: NN
There’s a rare, candid moment during the first episode of Justin Bieber: Seasons in which the global superstar is caught in the midst of a brief, off-screen re-calibration of his on-camera mode.
Talking directly to the camera, snug in his Drew-branded skater sweats, the ex-teen heartthrob hits all his publicist-coached talking points like a wind-up doll: he’s just boy from Statford, Ontario, who’s “excited to share my journey with you.”
Then he stops and flashes a Blue Steel gaze. His smouldering reverie is broken, however, when he suddenly looks off-camera to address an unseen director. “Can I do it again? I’m getting a little in my head about it.”
What does Justin Bieber get into his head about? Obviously, the carefully crafted, now-homespun persona of a boy who grew up to be an older boy who is now, as this YouTube Originals doc series continually points out, a 25-year-old, god-fearing, happily married man.
Seasons is in line with what we’ve come to expect from recent pop documentaries about Lady Gaga and Beyoncé: performative intimacy.
The first two episodes sent to critics portray a tedium and domestic ennui akin to digesting a double-page Us Weekly photo spread of celebrities grocery shopping or walking out of Starbucks. Celebrities! They’re just like you.
Seasons is basically an over-long Entertainment Tonight segment tailored for hive-mind consumption. It reveals more about the people in Bieber’s life – like wife, model Hailey Baldwin Bieber – and the hermetically sealed bubble Bieber seems to exist in.
The star’s brand synergy with the video site is strong. Shawn Mendes broke out on Vine, Bieber blew up on YouTube. This 10-part series, which airs every Monday and Wednesday in 10-minute segments, is part of the Google-owned video giant’s pivot away from prestige scripted shows toward unscripted.
Bieber is, of course, also rolling out his first album in five years. Rebranded as an adult, the pop star is making that crucial career transition that has sunk many teen stars before him. He’s grappling with what being an adult means: you’re maybe no longer considered cool.
In a series of now-deleted Instagram stories, Bieber appealed directly to stans to support his comeback single Yummy. That’s hardly unique, but what stood out was how he asked international fans to use VPNs to stream it (to hide their geolocation) and help him game Billboard’s streaming numbers. He also encouraged fans to create 24/7 Yummy playlists.
So what to expect from Seasons given this backdrop? The first episode focuses on how he got to this point. After a rapid-fire montage of media clips detailing what transpired during the release and subsequent tour for his 2015 album Purpose – the Ellen apology, the cancellation of 14 tour dates – we find Bieber driving through Stratford with his wife. The expected beats are hit – we visit the town square steps where he used to busk, the basement apartment he lived in for 10 years with his single mom. Walking through the apartment hallway, he is baffled by its glow up. “They now have art pieces on the wall,” he says.
But when Bieber arrives at the apartment door, it cuts from him standing in front of the door to a shot of him standing outside its exterior basement window at night. A visit to his childhood apartment takes place in the dark, from the outside looking in. Absent are interviews with locals who knew Bieber way back when, much less his mother and father.
If you follow Bieber, you’ll know he’s working through family baggage, perhaps what has driven him toward the Hillsong Church. In his recent Vogue interview, he confessed that he angrily hit a pillow during a candlelit therapy session, beating literally at his past. “I beat the fact that my mom was depressed a lot of my life and my dad has anger issues,” he said.
Bieber’s marrage seems to affirm his faith-based lifestyle. He was first introduced to Hailey Baldwin Bieber via her father, Stephen Baldwin, nearly a decade ago when he was 15 and she was 12. Hailey, long a Belieber herself, appears in Seasons as a silent, omnipresent figure, sort of like Yoko Ono in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be documentary. But behind that Mona Lisa smile is a wife focused on building an affair-proof marriage, and solely on her husband’s needs.
At first it seems like Mrs. Bieber is bored in the backseat of the SUV, idly scrolling through her phone as her husband enthusiastically sings along to an album playback. Then the camera cuts to her silently singing along, word for word.
Dressed in a wide shouldered Mugleresque black leather jacket, she looks like a total boss in the on-camera interviews. Hailey seems to be stabilizing force, but she doesn’t add much insight. “Everyone has watched him go through every phase of life,” she says in an interview. “And now, he’s really an adult.”
As for music, there isn’t much in Seasons beyond Yummy in the opening and closing credits. However, the second episode attempts to make the case that Bieber is a capital-M musician. In a slouchy tie-dye bomber, he goes into studio mode, strums a guitar, bangs drums, tickles piano keys and works behind the studio console. He’s a perfectionist, he says. We can believe this because we see him in a vocal booth, telling producer/mixer/engineer Josh Gudwin he needs to fix this line, or re-record that vocal. The attention to detail reminds me of reading how Dusty Springfield would obsessively re-record a song, line by line, until getting it right.
But these scenes just come off as overcompensation. Purpose proved Bieber had momentum as an adult pop star: he crossed over into the adult contemporary chart, and during the three years he “disappeared from his spotlight” he remained present through remixes of massive hits Despacito and Bad Guy. But this doc isn’t interested in a wider view, which leads us to wonder: if Bieber is able to move more freely and feels comfortable with who he is, why does Seasons feels so stage-managed?
It’s a portrait of a star who remains protected and even coddled. Perhaps the remaining eight episodes will pull the curtain back to reveal more about his recent Lyme disease diagnosis or how his Hillsong faith has supposedly led to an affair-proof marriage.
In the meantime, Beliebers thirsty for more telling insights can watch his Instagram stories or wait for TMZ exclusives.