I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, 2018.
Directed by Jessica Leski.
An exploration of boyband fandom, driven by the stories of women from four different generations.
There are few groups of people more unfairly maligned for what they love than teenage girls. Society absolutely loves to look down its noses at young women, chortling with snooty derision at their affection for the celebrity du jour. Never is that truer than when it comes to boybands. Thousands of column inches have been furiously scribbled, diminishing the feelings of the women who arrive at concerts, book signings and airports in order to scream their love for floppy-haired young lads with kind eyes and washboard abs. I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is an affectionate ode to those women, and the men who’ve caught their eyes over the years.
The title comes from a viral video featuring teenage One Direction devotee Elif, whose tearful reactions to the band earned her a degree of internet fame. Filmmaker Jessica Leski first meets her as a 16-year-old, explaining that “they’re all my boyfriends” and “human beings can’t be that perfect”, before declaring with baffling specificity: “I wanna have soup with Niall”. The movie then spins off into other case studies: 33-year-old Aussie Take That fan Dara, 25-year-old Californian writer and former Backstreet Boys newsletter writer Sadia and 64-year-old Susan, who was a fully-fledged part of Beatlemania.
There’s a light and airy feel to I Used To Be Normal. It’s never anything other than a celebration of boyband fandom, avoiding investigating it too hard. Of the four fans we see, Dara is definitely the most thoughtful about the phenomenon, turning to a whiteboard to give the audience a crash course on the appeal of boybands. They’re approachable young lads with a three to five year shelf life, comprising recognisable archetypes: mysterious one, cute one, sensible one, sexy one, forgotten one. Amusingly, Boyz II Men are quickly disqualified. There’s no room for sex here, only the vague hint of it. The soup is presumably a metaphor. Or maybe it isn’t?
Elif is definitely the most intriguing of the subjects, because her obsession is still malleable. Dara, Sadia and Susan all maintain boxes of boyband memories and still participate actively in fan culture, but Elif’s fandom is raw and explosive in a way that only a teenage girl can experience. The documentary visits her over the course of several years, in which her relationship with One Direction changes and morphs into a burgeoning music career and an affection for jazz legends like Etta James. As Susan puts it, “all experience leads to more experience”, and all four participants can trace a line from their fandom to their present day, whether it’s discovering their sexuality or honing early journalism skills.
Where the movie struggles is in its desire to keep things light rather than delve into the toxicity inherent within some of these fandoms, amplified by the internet. There are small references to how fandoms dislike anyone who enters into a romance with a boyband member – Susan rather disdainfully mentions Heather Mills – but this is brushed off, rather than examined. Even a brief sequence in which Sadia recounts a recent experience on the Backstreet Boys cruise (“I was an observer to my own insanity”) falls short of ever seriously exploring the potentially negative effects of putting so many emotional eggs in the boyband basket.
But the movie never makes a secret of what it is – a tribute to boybands and to the fans who love them. It’s a breezy watch from start to finish and a rare example of a movie which sees fandom as something with the potential to be healthy and formative, rather than a depressing distraction from “more important” things. It might not make you want to join the screaming throngs when the next big thing emerges into the charts but, for anyone with a boyband affection of their own, it’s a nostalgic and enjoyable trip down the memory lane of adolescent intensity.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.