Backstreet Boys, One Direction, Take That, The Beatles, Mercury4: boybands that have resonated in the halls of music history. Well, maybe not Mercury4 as such. Regardless, you never really forget your first boyband. Filmmaker Jessica Leski certainly didn’t, having only really gotten into One Direction at the age of 31.
“I had never liked a boyband before,” admits the filmmaker, whose last major release was the TV length documentary The Ball, following four students with special needs preparing for their school’s debutante ball. Film and TV exploring disability are now prevalent but back in 2010, The Ball was groundbreaking.
“If anything, I’d been quite dismissive of them, as a phenomenon, and also of the fans. Then when it happened to me, I was like, ‘oh my goodness! I’ve misjudged every single part of this.’ It got me curious as to what I’d been missing out on.”
Having discovered a love for the ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ singers, Leski set off to meet other boy band fans and uncover what fascinates them about their idols. The final product is I Used to Be Normal, a documentary that talks to four fangirls both home and abroad: high school student Elif (One Direction), 25-year-old journalist Sadia (Backstreet Boys), 33-year-old brand strategist Dara (Take That) and 64-year-old TV producer Susan (The Beatles).
“Very early on, I wanted to collect a wide range of experiences from a wide range of fans,” Leski explains. “Then when we sat down and looked at their interviews, we thought these women were so strong and unique, I really loved the idea of getting to know them better and following them over the course of a couple of years.”
In any arena of pop culture, whenever you’re asked to defend something you love, there’s sometimes that sense of doubt playing in the back of your mind that this is all just a precursor to being mocked for holding something close to your heart. Was there ever a moment when Leski’s subjects believed her intentions weren’t good?
“It was all about building that trust,” she says. “Showing them that it wasn’t going to be a film just about boybands. It was about what their lives were like at that point in time. They were just so happy to talk about it with someone. I think, because I was a fan myself, they could tell there wasn’t any judgement there.”
This trust that her subjects have in Leski transcends into moments of wonderful humanity throughout the film. To the fans, the music is more than just music. It’s a gateway to a new career, a way to remember lost friends, and to discover your own identity.
“Dara said to me, in the middle of an interview, ‘I’ve never spoken to someone about Take That and they’ve looked back at me with that much joy!’ She normally gets looked at with this weird judgement.”
If you were to ask anyone – particularly men – to describe a boyband fan, thoughts will likely turn to sweaty, tearful teens screaming their love for four postulating boys at a packed-out concert. It’s easy for some, but not right, to look down upon these fans as being hysterical and naïve. But what about the Star Wars fan who gets angry about changes to the canon? Or the football fan cheering or crying from the comfort of their armchair? Why do they get a pass?
“It’s very unfair,” Jessica states. “And I think it comes down to the fact that things that girls and women love generally get derided and made fun of. Especially things that young women like. You see people cry at football games, cover their wall in posters and have a favourite player, and we celebrate that kind of fandom.”
One of the things that stands out in the documentary is how the older women featured look back on the fantasies they had about their idols. From playing chase, having to stand in for a sick band member or just eating a bowl soup, there’s nothing mentioned that would have anyone clutching at their pearls. It’s all remarkably innocent.
“Yes, probably for a lot of girls, they think of these boys romantically,” Leski admits. “But a lot of it is just about having an idol, having someone who is sending you positive messages. I think a lot of the girls think of them as brothers and a real positive force in their lives. In a similar way that sport stars are for a lot of people. A lot of music and pop culture isn’t kind to women, respectful to women… But there’s these songs that tell them they’re beautiful, they deserve love and respect. It’s sad that there’s not more of that. The fact that their fantasies are so innocent is a reflection of those lyrics.”
With the film being released around Australia, and having done the festival circuit, I Used to Be Normal looks set to expose a fandom once mocked in order to show the heart and normality within. It also comes with a profoundly feminist message calling for girls and women to embrace the passion and joy that they experience with boybands. What then does Leski hope her audience will take away with them after seeing the film?
“What’s exciting for me is having people who see it who aren’t boyband fans,” Leski says. “[People] who are sceptical about the phenomena or hate boybands, and they come out of it and they say, ‘I want to apologise to every girl I went to high school with. I need to go and say sorry to my sister. I didn’t understand what this was about.’ People like me, who thought they knew what loving a boyband was about and are really surprised about the story they see on screen.”
I Used to be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is in cinemas November 22, 2018.