Movie Reviews, Music

In Wonder: The Shawn Mendes doc is just fine… nothing special… but it could have been.

I want to start this out by saying how much I want to love Shawn Mendes. In fact – I used to love him, I think his first few albums and original splash onto the scene were great. But I’ve got problems with 2019/2020 Shawn Mendes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this – why does he bother me so much and when did it switch from ‘I think this guy is GREAT’ to ‘I think this guy is ANNOYING?’. I was cautious about his new documentary, In Wonder.

On paper, I should be obsessed with this doc. It’s produced by Fulwell 73, a production company that I deeply admire; I know people who worked on this, which always endears me to projects; and it’s about a Canadian pop star, and I love Canadian pop stars! But I wasn’t obsessed with this doc.

If anything – I found a new thing to be bothered by: the team of adults around him. I think they mean well and I think they are very good at their jobs, I just don’t like the product they’ve built.

Here’s my general thesis about the whole thing: Shawn the 22-year-old from Pickering is just your average 22-year-old who has an insane amount of potential – but ‘Shawn Mendes’ the brand and business needs a refresh.

So let’s get into it.

The doc follows his 2019 tour. We get snippets of him writing his upcoming album, flashback moments of archival footage to explain ‘how we got here’, and “introspective” interviews about how he ‘feels’ about all ‘this’. The doc builds up to his Toronto concert at the Rogers Centre, hit’s it’s a climactic crisis when he cancels his Brazil show due to laryngitis, and concludes happily ever after when the tour ends.

If you are interested in Shawn Mendes as a casual observer – I think you’d find this doc to be extremely mediocre. If you love Shawn Mendes you’d love this doc – because it’s fan service. It exists to be positive pr leading up to his upcoming album. Fine. But it could have been so much more.

As The New York Times says,

“This one’s for his roughly 26 million Twitter followers fine with seeing Mendes performing acoustically in an empty bathroom, and sharing stolen moments with girlfriend Camila Cabello. Less enthusiastic fans might wish the film’s opening shower metaphor wasn’t just a tease. I, for one, was hoping there’d be more behind the curtain.”

I think we all wanted more behind the (shower) curtain …

They started off with this whole shower scene (yes you’re hot, we get it), and him waxing poetically about invincibility (yes you’re “deep”, we get it) – it was slightly insufferable. It was not a great place to start.

They quickly rewound to vintage clips of Shawn growing up – and granted, this does a half-decent job of building out Shawn the person. We see his first ever concert at the Cherry Street Y (Side note – I love that Y – it has a great pool). We get a few clips from his vine days and his early shows. There are lots of cuts back and forth between the tour and his “small bedroom in Pickering”. Clips like this:

This is where I hit my biggest production complaint: I hated the “vintage” VHS filter they use for current footage. I’m sure someone will pop up to say, “no we actually used tape to film!” – at which point I’ll say: WHY? This is a doc about 2019/20 – it’s annoying. I get that it’s trendy. Toby on Tiktok is cool when he uses it, but I don’t love it here.

I digress. The authenticity in this doc comes from his scenes at home in the GTA and with the people who knew him ‘before’. There are a few great moments here for anyone, like his cute little plaid pants, but for people from Toronto there are some things I need to point out. 1 – his friend Brain rocking the U of T hoodie 2 – Shawn remarking about the mall that he “thinks” is being built (oh yes – that is a mall getting built alright bud and you’re going to lose your view honey). 3 – whenever he talks about his local coffee shop – it’s Jimmy’s. 4 – Watching him get stuck in traffic as he tries to get onto the Gardner – CLASSIC. 5 – Driving the 401 – only this doc could make that seem pretty. 6- Hearing him nerd about his field in Pickering and love for his burb – iconic. I love all of this. However, I hate how he consistently (and probably contractually) calls the Skydome the “Rogers Centre”. No one growing up in Toronto dreams of the “Rogers Centre” – it’s the Skydome and always will be. But more on this later.

There is a flip in the way he talks when he’s being himself. Most notably, he swears when he’s being himself. He sounds like someone who is 22. I also notice the difference in the way he talks to his mum. Again – we’ll come back to this.

It’s in these moments that I remember the kid that I saw potential in. The kid that made my Pathfinders blush when they talked about him. The guy who felt like every guy I grew up with. These are the Shawn-the-human moments and I love these these moments.

We get these moments as well during his songwriting sessions. Although he’s crafting thoughts, his poetic way of talking makes sense here and you can see him flip in and out of that way of creating.

IMO – these big stadium bangers he’s writing are good, but his best stuff is slower, more intimate, inspired by John Mayer. You’ll hear all these things in my all-time favourite song, the one that got me really into Shawn Mendes, Ruin:

We can talk about his music another time – this is about the doc and I’ll give them credit for attempting to bring us into his songwriting.

I always love songwriting moments in docs – there is just something so interesting about watching people create stuff. There are some great moments here. The songwriting session at the end with the sunset over the water while they write Wonder – stunning. I could honestly watch a whole doc about people writing. It’s why I love the Taylor Swift doc Miss Americana because she’s SO good at it and why I adore the Harry Styles doc – it’s fully about writing an album. I wish we got more about why he was writing what he was writing, but ironically – the most interesting tidbit of info about his songwriting comes from the car ride when he confesses that every song is about his girlfriend Camila Cabello.

Throughout the doc we get a lot of moments with Cabello or #Shamila moments. I’m not a fan of Cabello – I am a fan of Fifth Harmony and I will forever be irrationally bitter that she broke up the dream team. I think she has a lot of talent, but I also think she’s selfish. She is the Zayn, the Geri, the one who makes it so that we cannot have nice things. I’m also not a fan of #Shamila. It has always felt like a publicity stunt. The will-they-won’t-they of young celebrity love. IMO – Mendes is the bigger celebrity. She benefits from dating him and it felt like once they started dating, she became more famous and thus had more opportunities to solidify herself on that pop princess tier. All that said – Never Be the Same is a bop.

What I find most interesting about this doc – is that they made her likable. To me – Señorita – is like listening to nails on a chalkboard. I hate the song. I also strongly dislike I Know What You Did Last Summer. I just don’t like them together. Or so I thought. Listening to the two of them sing Slow Dancing in a Burning Room in the bathroom at the MVAs – gold. That eyebrow raise he gives her – gold. Hearing her talk about him in a relaxed way as she sat on his counter – also gold. She is being pushed to be this over the top person – but her relaxed, just being herself – I’m surprisingly into it.

I have a lot of thoughts about his choice to ride out covid in Miami with her; I was extremely disappointed by his choice not to perform in the Canadian Stronger Together benefit show for Canadian food banks at the start of this whole thing; and I’m very annoyed by the paparazzi photos of them out and about together. However – I might give them a bit more slack after this doc. I still don’t love it – but I have more empathy.

Half way through the doc we are at his big Toronto show. This is where I come into this story. I was at that concert and it was… disappointing.

The Shawn Mendes brand was everywhere – he launched a campaign with Roots and had a special pop up store near Bremner in Bobbie Rosenfeld Park. As a Canadian celebrity this was a great partnership. I was impressed – it was a smart move. He also did a campaign with Tim Horton’s – and he had his face on Tim’s cups everywhere. It felt like the prodigal son had returned for his biggest show ever, at home – and people were proud of him.

Plus – it was the Skydome! When tickets went on sale, I specifically got tickets on the side of the dome that you can see the CN Tower from when the dome is open. I had done this for the Ed Sheeran concert in 2018, and it was magic. I could not wait for this uniquely Toronto moment. But then it rained. You can see the grey skys in the doc. I kept crossing my fingers they’d open the dome – I kept making jokes that the girls would not complain if Shawn had a wet t-shirt moment… But alas it didn’t happen – which sucks, because the dome is ugly when it’s closed.

So we get into the venue, find our seats and I remember turning to my friend Jenn and saying – this is it? A small stage and a single floating rose – this is so lame. If you’re going to do a stadium – you’ve got to make it stadium-size! Especially for those of us in the cheap seats up top. We’re far away – and it has to be big. It truly felt, like they took the arena set up and just plopped it in. It felt like they phoned it in for this ‘big’ show. So imagine my surprise when in this doc, Shawn shows up and asks about the small stage:

The stage was small. Shawn the kid knew it. But we hear his tour manager, Cez Darke, shut it down by saying “Come on man. Just take it in”. I found myself shaking my head – wishing that Shawn had stood up for this and said ‘No – it’s too small.’

There was all this chatter on twitter about Shawn having “Special Guests”. In my mind, as the prodigal son, I kept wondering who he was going to call. Perhaps this would be his moment to help elevate Canadian talent who he admires (maybe Scott Helman or the Arkells), or he could play the ‘this is my town’ card and call up big Canadian names to welcome him to the big leagues (maybe Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Sarah McLachlan, Justin Bieber or Drake), or else perhaps the ‘Special’ guests meant special to him – and we’d have his high school choir or other key people in his life. I also thought perhaps he’d bring out Chance The Rapper or Khalid – people who he had recently collaborated with.

The options were limitless – it was TIFF, there were so many people in town! For the last three years, I organized a TIFF celebrity sighting game for my office. Multiple co-workers saw Shawn and Camila out and about (we’re two blocks from his condo) – so it wasn’t a surprise she was in town. But – when she was the only special guest…

ARE YOU KIDDING ME SHAWN MENDES?! Insert major eyeroll.

I’d also like to draw your attention to his cover of Fix You that was also in this doc. There were a lot of minors at this concert understandably and they were ALWAYS standing up, screaming, and singing along with every word. But then, Shawn starts singing this classic Coldplay song and so many of the kids around us sat down. They had NO IDEA what this song was – it was laughable. Meanwhile – every millennial went crazy.

In this theory that his brand needs work – this is the direction I want him to go. I think he has good taste, and I want more of this. I’ll use Harry Styles as an example here – Styles has successfully introduced a whole new generation to Fleetwood Mac. Shawn – please introduce this generation to Coldplay, John Mayer, and (in an ideal world) The Tragically Hip.

All that being said – the concert was fine… much like this doc. It just didn’t live up to the potential it could have had.

I mentioned earlier that I think his way of speaking flips when he’s being authentic. We got quite a bit of his overthinking poetic way of speaking in the back half of this doc.

There was a scene where he was just casually putting something up on Instagram:

It was a Benny Drama sketch brought to life:

Then the ‘drama’ hits.

Every story needs an emotional arc – so fine, the drama here is that his voice is getting damaged from a strenuous tour. Health drama is always such a big thing in these docs. Gaga had a whole health crisis in hers.

I think being a big star like this is grueling. It’s why musical theatre stars always have understudies – everyone knows at some point someone is going to get sick. Sadly, Benny Drama can’t fill in for you. So you get pushed to the limit.

I don’t think this doc did anything revolutionary telling this story – there were a few moments that I thought were good.

His first vocal break in London was heartbreaking. It looked like he was going to fully breakdown. I wish we stayed in that moment longer. Then the big Brazil show cancelation. What a nightmare. Of course, he broke down and wanted to call his mum.

I mentioned earlier that we get the authentic ‘ Shawn the kid’ when he’s talking to his mum. This scene where he’s facetimeing with his mom is heartbreaking to me. When he can barely say “mum” and just sits there crying.

She so easily calms him down, re-centres him, and brings out the best in him.

I think this is why I’m most disappointed he didn’t choose to spend his summer in Canada. You could tell throughout this doc that he needed a break. That he dreamed of having “Small Town” moments just eating jerky with friends. So while I understand you wanted to be with your girlfriend – Miami feels like an odd place to relax.

So Shawn here’s my pitch. Buy yourself a place in Muskoka. You’ll love driving your Tesla up the 400. You’ll really enjoy hanging out with your friends around a campfire just playing guitar and tapping back into that love of music. You can legally get high here all you want. You can wear plaid pj pants all the time. It’s also stunning – so you’ll get some songwriting inspo. I want you to really nurture ‘Small Town Shawn’.

I think your dream venues should be The Kee to Bala or the Budweiser Stage in the summer – play venues that Small Town Shawn (or really any 20-something-Ontario kid) would love to go see a concert at. Write songs that would kill it on a summer night on the lake.

I really wish you could have been at the Rally Cry show in 2019. You should be ‘the guy’ in this city. You could be ‘the guy.’ This is what I want for you. So call Max – the current GTA king. He’ll set you straight. He’ll introduce you to Nick Nurse and help you find some work-life balance.

Basically, get back to being a kid from Pickering. Stop writing songs about ‘the pressure’ of being famous – come home and start doing something to take that pressure off.

2 thoughts on “In Wonder: The Shawn Mendes doc is just fine… nothing special… but it could have been.”

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