Bring The Soul: The Movie review — K-Pop sensation BTS deserves better documentaries

Though where its predecessors succeeded — behind-the-scenes deep dive Burn The Stage and bombastic concert film Love Yourself in Seoul — Bring the Soul has a tremendous lack of focus.

Siddhant Adlakha August 08, 2019 15:19:33 IST
Bring The Soul: The Movie review — K-Pop sensation BTS deserves better documentaries

The third of these films to hit Indian cinemas in the last nine months, Bring The Soul: The Movie follows Korean pop showstoppers BTS, i.e. the Bangtan Boys, through their fall 2018 tour. Their pit-stops include North America, Europe, Japan and Korea, the events of which are narratively framed via their recollections in a Parisian restaurant. Though where its predecessors succeeded — behind-the-scenes deep dive Burn The Stage and bombastic concert film Love Yourself in SeoulBring the Soul has a tremendous lack of focus. It has neither the intimacy of the former nor the musicality of the latter, and the result feels less like a documentary and more like a disconnected series of outtakes.

Bring The Soul The Movie review  KPop sensation BTS deserves better documentaries

Bring the Soul: The Movie poster. Image via Twitter

The group, comprising RM (Kim Namjoon), Suga (Min Yoongi), J-Hope (Jung Hoseok), Jin (Kim Seokjin), Jimin (Park Jimin), V (Kim Taehyung) and Jungkook (Jeon Jungkook), are a crossover phenomenon, transcending barriers of language and culture like no Asian act in history, with messages of self-love, told through grandiloquent pop opera. For their status as global icons however, they deserve better.

Which, of course, is not to say that Bring The Soul is conceptually without merit. For the price of a movie ticket, it offers fans an occasional seat at the table (interspersed with brief performance snippets of bangers like MIC Drop and Anpanman), but it seldom manages to be more than the bare-minimum.

With the rising prominence of the fan-to-creator social media pipeline, more and more artists have capitalized on the intimacy offered by Twitter and YouTube. The most recent episode of Bangtan Bomb, the group’s behind-the-scenes vlog series, features the boys celebrating RM’s birthday backstage; Bring The Soul features a similar scene, wherein Jimin’s father sends him birthday flowers on tour. It’s a delightfully sincere moment, though it’s also indistinguishable from the YouTube vignettes Big Hit Entertainment puts online for free. The only difference is the length of installment; the group’s YouTube content appears in a smaller, more digestible format, where each scene is an isolated peek behind the curtain.

The film, however, runs for a hundred minutes with little connective tissue or through-line, like a BTS playlist on autoplay. It is, perhaps, what some hardcore fans might desire — who am I, as a mere casual, to deny them this? — but Bring The Soul occupies a strange space in that regard. It constantly invites comparisons to other mainstream stars, and even other styles of documentary, as if to subconsciously project its own cinematic inadequacy.

The group’s dinnertime musings feel intimate, but they come and go haphazardly, seemingly cutting away before the real heart-to-hearts. These are sweet, charismatic artists whose opinions on food and travel crop up ocassionally, but they aren’t given the requisite focus. Bring The Soul is part travel-doc, though it barely skims the surface of the group’s relationship with food as globetrotters (though you can tell they’re eager to talk about it). The camera rests at eye-level as they eat; sitting alongside them while they reflect and reminisce ought to feel like a personal journey, but instead, it feels like the truly vulnerable bits have been cut out.

What remains are mere hints of insecurity and outsidership, as they walk the dual line of K-Pop stars in Europe and North America, going from complete unknowns to hounded celebrities depending on the setting. It’s a unique premise, and one whose effects on the group could’ve been mined for dramatic potential. But it’s hardy given the time of day beyond being mentioned a handful of times.

As the film flashes back to the preceding tour, we’re given glimpses of events and mistakes they reference. However, few of these instances are ever allowed to breathe within the narrative. One in particular stands out as a positive example: Jungkook, who kicks off the documented leg of the tour in tears over a vocal error, goes on to sustain a sidelining injury. It provides the perfect platform to explore the group’s inner dynamic — their support for one other, their adjustments in choreography — and it proves to be a matter of problem-solving (Jungkook, in a heartfelt and hilarious scene, is wheeled out on stage on a moving platform while his group-mates dance without him). Though this segment is sandwiched on either side by seemingly at-random footage. On their own, scenes of the bandmembers exercising or experimenting with music feel requisitely private, but they seem to appear only once (or at most twice) before the film skips to the next scenario.

In comparison, when Burn The Stage chronicled the moments between concerts, it created a tapestry of exhaustion, creativity and camaraderie, threading the needle between these heightened states and moving alongside the artists as they transitioned from one to the next. Here, in Bring The Soul, you could re-assemble the footage in any order and it would feel almost identical.

Whether by accident or by design, the film invites comparisons to the concert docs of yesteryear. As the group arrives at new locations, the film briefly switches to (or, it would seem, applies a filter imitating) faded, grainy celluloid strips in a 4:3 aspect ratio, like some unearthed, vibrant masterwork being broadcast to an old TV set. It conjures memories of concert films like Prince’s Sing o’ the Times (1987) or Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), though the agita with which gobbles and expels these filters — in almost alternating shots — prevents its use of form from being truly meaningful.

The harkening to western legends becomes literal when the group visits the Grammy museum. One could argue BTS is alresdy on the level of any of the English-speaking acts they come across; the film invites this comparison too. Though in its eventual execution of their story here, one wonders if the mediocrity of how they’re chronicled on film might be holding them back. The camera holds on a picture of Beyoncé, whose feature-length Lemonade film was a visual masterpiece. BTS certainly has a soulful, energetic music video repertoire, but a film as middling and meandering as Bring The Soul inadvertently separates them from the acts in this segment.

Their musical prowess speaks for itself, no doubt. The core BTS fandom (a.k.a. ARMY) is a powerful, passionate enough force that wider acceptance from the western mainstream feels like an outdated benchmark (the deeply personal fan testimonials, while dropped-in mid film rather than as a climactic endpoint, speak to this better than I could). And yet, the many comparisons to The Beatles — which I’ve made myself, as have BTS’ prior films — make Big Hit Entertainment’s film output feel all the more dispiriting.

This is a band that deserved cinematic greatness. The Beatles had their A Hard Day’s Night. Prince had his Purple Rain. The Talking Heads had Jonathan Demme’s landmark Stop Making Sense. While success in cinema is by no means a prerequisite for musical stranding, BTS has, over the last year, entered the realm of theatrical releases, so the conversation is inevitable.

There’s a fantastic few minutes in the middle of Bring The Soul — during the L.A. leg of their tour — that exemplifies the group’s cinematic potential. It’s so uncharacteristically good that I can’t help but wonder if they temporarily switched videographers (granted, Burn The Stage director Park Jun-Soo has solo credit here, so I’ll defer to it as his doing). After discussing potential pyrotechnic dangers during their performance of IDOL, the film seemingly separates the band members as they wait to take the stage during their Citi Field concert. Rather than moments performed for the camera, or moments performed for the attendees, the film captures a silent, heart-pounding intimacy that goes beyond placing a camera in the middle of a group meeting; it captures preparedness, fear, insecurity, and even transformation, as the boys ready themselves to (almost literally) walk through flame.

The film even sheds its flat, distinctly vlog-ish aesthetic for this segment. Instead, it deepens its black values and plays up the skin-tone saturation — a much truer imitation of film than the feeble filter used elsewhere — and allows its performers the kind of internal, intimate personal life the rest of the documentary seems to deny them. The darkness of the backstage wings becomes a cocoon, while the slivers of light and flame on stage become an escape route: toward danger, and toward freedom. It says more about the self-destructive nature of their non-stop physical passion than any monologue to the camera could hope to, and it uses light and colour to turn the very idea of the stage into a frantic mystery.

This brilliant streak doesn’t last, though. Before long, the film fades back into the group’s online stockpile, reverting to a superficial videographic skim of some of modern pop culture’s biggest icons. Bring The Soul is, at the end of the day, adequate. It’s a breezy, inoffensive compendium that presents its stars at seemingly close range, allowing them moments of verbal introspection without ever attempting deeper exploration. For a band well on their way to all-time stardom, though, “adequate” can’t help but feel frustrating.

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