I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story (2018) - Jessica Leski
I've always felt that the true test of a documentaries quality is whether you enjoy the film despite not being interested in the subject matter. If the director can generate enough empathy and demonstrate the subject matter is compelling then half the battle is won. They then have to deliver the story in a unique, engaging and cinematic way. I don't think it's going too far to say that I am not a boyband fan. So it's a testament to director Jessica Leski that by the end of I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story I had a tear in my eye and felt strangely connected to the four stories she tells in this joyful, passionate and moving documentary.
Initially I was skeptical. We meet four super fans, Elif, 16 when we meet her, a huge fan of One Direction; Dara, a Sydney based Brand Strategist, who is obsessed with Take That; Sadia, a San Francisco journalist who adores Backstreet Boys and Susan, a TV producer in Melbourne, who still holds a candle for the original boy band, The Beatles. Each of them discusses the emergence of their fangirl obsessions and the unexplainable dedication they felt for these bands. I did question whether such subject matter could carry a feature film. I found myself rolling my eyes at their devout love and blind devotion to, with the exception of The Beatles, boy bands for whom I had little interest or admiration. But Leski's direction, non-judgemental, curious and inquisitiveness kept leading these four women, and me, into interesting terrain.
Dara eloquently maps the make-up of a boy band. What makes a boyband successful and how there is a perfect chemistry to their success. This initially feels manipulative. Most boy bands are essentially designed and created to illicit obsession and devotion from their fans. But in trying to understand how they work the film unlocks something much more interesting, engaging and universal. The importance of music to these women, and all of us, and how it helps shape who they are, helps them understand themselves, and how each band ends up meaning something different to each of them, whether it be the inspiration to become a musician, helping define their sexuality, being a support during difficult times or recognising emerging sexuality.
Despite the importance boybands play in these women's lives, they are acutely aware of the shame, embarassment and perception that boyband fangirls carry. There is an obvious comparison drawn with rock bands, Obsessives of which carry a certain coolness, whereas boyband fans carry only shame. Each of them wrestles with the effect, then and now, these bands have on them. And through the documentary and the exploration of these obsessions they begin to question and address some of the challenges and contradictions they feel. These are the moments when the film reaches its peak. Leski lets the moments play out, asking probing questions and by never judging her subjects allows them time to truly contemplate.
The film also benefits from spending time with these women over a number of years. Firstly there is a palpable chemistry and relationship felt between filmmaker and subject. An intimacy and honesty in the interviews that endears and deepens the connection you feel for the women. This is most evident in Elif, who we first meet as a young teenager, introduced in a hilarious, albeit embarrassing, YouTube clip of her being overwhelmed whilst watching a One Direction video. By the end of the film, she is 18 and beginning to realise some of the challenges and disappointments life throws at us. There is something profoundly moving about seeing this young, impressionable and obsessive young boyband fangirl grow into a woman, graduate from high school and begin to dream about her future, and have to reconcile her dreams with reality. The innocence of her fangirl youth suddenly shifting into stark contrast with some of the bigger realities of growing up.
This connection is true of all of them. Susan, who reminisces about seeing The Beatles when they first came to Australia, is now, some 50-odd years later, able to reflect on the influence and place the band has played at key moments in her life. It makes for an intriguing portrait of a life, which delivers a beautiful, potential synchronicity toward the film's end. Sadia's story is equally fascinating. As a young girl, her obsession with Backstreet Boys led her to create a newsletter and website updating followers on news about the band. These early activities have led her to a career in journalism. And finally, Dara, who was able to use her love of Take That to understand her sexuality and find happiness, and contentment with her obsession.
I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is a delightful, often hilarious documentary in which director Jessica Leski explores the lives of four engaging, charming and wonderful women through their obsessions with a boyband. Although it will not have me listening to Take That, Backstreet Boys or One Direction, it does brilliantly demonstrate, and reframe, the importance of music, and boybands for women in shaping the life choices they make and how they define themselves in the world around them. A joyous treat of a film.