‘Justin Bieber: Our World’ Director Michael D. Ratner On “Tentpole” Concert Documentary: “Listen With The Volume Maxed Out”

The latest 007 adventure, No Time to Die, opens today, but the Bond film is not the only tentpole-scaled entertainment happening of the weekend. The Amazon Prime Video release of the concert documentary Justin Bieber: Our World also qualifies, from the perspective of director Michael D. Ratner.

“We’re living in a time when it’s not just Marvel movies and franchises that are the big tentpole, Hollywood world-changing events, it’s these mega-music projects,” Ratner tells Deadline. “Amazon’s been phenomenal and they’ve had a history of making tentpole, event-ized projects like this.”

The project began with an ambitious idea: as 2020 neared an end, the music superstar and his team dreamed of a way to “close out a year unlike any other.” They put together a one-time New Years Eve concert to be staged on the roof of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, marking Bieber’s first live performance in three years.

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“I just wanted to create a night that was gonna bring people together and people could just let go, enjoy themselves,” Bieber says in the film. “I’m excited to get back on that stage and make people smile, make people happy.”

Ratner, CEO of OBB Media, says it was Bieber who came up with the idea to document the event as it came together, from rehearsals conducted amid the ever-present worry of Covid, to the building of the stage that was an engineering feat in itself. Every ounce of weight had to be accounted for, from Bieber to his dancers and musicians, to film crews, lest the whole thing come crashing down onto the hotel’s International Ballroom below.

“I mean, it’s a wild idea,” Ratner admits. “They go for it… They turn the [hotel] balconies into European-style balcony seating off the edge of the rooms. It’s pretty incredible.”

A select group of 240 people watched the concert in-person from the hotel, a guest list that included Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell (Finneas, Bieber and Benny Blanco co-wrote the song “Lonely” that features prominently in the film). Bieber serves as an executive producer on the film and his company, Bieber Time Films, co-produced it. He’s also one of the cinematographers, shooting candid cell phone video of himself and with his wife, Hailey Bieber.

“I think that’s the unique charm of the film,” Ratner says. “You have this juxtaposition of truly self-captured footage, really raw, shot on an iPhone and then you also have this 30-plus camera glossy well-shot concert and I think it’s the two at play that make it really unique and capture the spirit of this most bizarre year in 2020. We also have a small [documentary] film crew that’s also filming, so I think that the film really feels special and unique and it should because what they’re pulling off in the movie is special and unique.”

Ratner has collaborated with Bieber on a number of projects in recent years, including music videos and the documentary series Justin Bieber: Seasons, which has racked up almost 70 million views on YouTube.

“We’ve built up a great working relationship,” Ratner notes, “and I think it’s working, it’s really working.”

The relationship between music documentary subject and filmmaker can be a fraught one. It went south, for instance, on Jagged, Alison Klayman’s new documentary about Alanis Morissette. The Canadian singer-songwriter came out swinging after she saw the film, on which Klayman had final cut. 

“I feel like with Justin and I there’s that trust,” Ratner insists. “If maybe there’s a creative disagreement we’ll talk it out and we’ll get to a place that’s right for the filmmaking process, the audience, for Justin’s vision, and I think that’s why these things have worked so well.” 

He adds, “Quite frankly, one of the reasons why Seasons was such a global success was that people were shocked at the authenticity, and Justin was an EP and it was a Bieber Time film as well. It takes time and communication and I’m very proud of the way that we thread that needle and make it work.”

Justin Bieber: Our Time captures Bieber, 27, at a time of evident contentment in his life.

“He’s grown up before the world’s eyes and he has grown into a leader, an entertainer, a husband,” Ratner observes. “He’s in such a happy, healthy place in his life… I felt like the story here was looking at a macro sense at Justin as a leader while also looking at him to lead this very specific event and pull off this show.”

From a creative standpoint, the New Years Eve concert appeared to come off flawlessly. There was at least one hiccup beforehand—Bieber’s show designer/choreographer Nick DeMoura got Covid about a month before the concert, but recovered in time to rejoin the production. Where the show ran into problems was on the streaming end—VenewLive struggled to “accommodate the unprecedented demand” of fans who paid to log in for the event from around the world. That delayed the start of the show from 8pm PT to 8:45pm PT—just a quarter of an hour before midnight, east coast time.

“When technology fails you and all of the stakes—and people around the world are just sitting there waiting, it’s intense,” Ratner says. “In the back of my head I was thinking this is great drama for the doc, if we get through it… And I knew I got some great footage and a phenomenal third act there to take us home. It was rough.”

Off stage, Bieber had to cool his jets while the streaming issues were resolved; he’s shown in the film anxious to start the show and wondering how he can maintain his adrenaline if doesn’t know when he’ll get the green light.

In the end, he performed a 21-song set, dancing rigorous choreography through much of it. And he displayed the vocals that made him a star barely out of boyhood.

“I don’t think he’s ever sounded better,” Ratner comments. “When you watch this film, listen with the volume maxed out. It’s an hour and a half, you can escape and you can just really appreciate it… His vocal performance is amazing.”

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