Words: Neha Nandakumar
One of the many questions philosophy interests itself with is this. If you perfectly described an apple to me, with its shape, colour, and features, would I still learn something new from seeing it myself? The answer would be yes. Surely experience would give me something mere description can’t? But when it comes to Shawn Mendes: In Wonder, I’m not so sure. I have watched it twice, but if a friend had simply summarised the documentary for me, it wouldn’t have been a vastly different experience.
Shawn Mendes: In Wonder, directed by Grant Singer, was released in late 2020 on Netflix. The documentary begins with the Canadian singer-songwriter walking in a corridor towards a stage. He enters, high-fiving and hugging his fans in a concert hall aglow with wristband lights. The rest of the movie focuses on unpacking this person. A person for whom concert seats so effortlessly fill up, whom lights and stages and crowds of ardent fans excitedly await. What is it like to be Shawn Mendes?
The movie moves from scene to scene of his life: his childhood, family, relationships, and work. We get a peek into his childhood bedroom and the beginnings of his career. We get to be in the car as he speaks to his sister and listen to his father joke about him mooching off his family for dinner. Fans who listened to Senorita on repeat get to see him and Camila Cabello unwind by singing one of John Mayer’s hits. We get to see them share a loving moment before the start of a concert. But after watching all of this, I still don’t feel like I got to know the singer any better.
The delightful thing about watching the normal lives of celebrities is seeing the things that make them who they are. What kind of jokes do they make? What kind of mistakes do they make? If I met this person, would I want to be their friend? What we want most is to know the person the celebrity actually is. But I didn’t feel like that happened here. The things we see about him are, as is the documentary’s focus, normal things that everyone shares: family, friends, romantic relationships, and work.
Why does it fail? It’s not that the movie doesn’t try. It really does try to show glimpses of him: his journal, his room, his conversations, and moments from everyday life. But these feel like just that. Glimpses. Without a strong larger narrative tying them together, I see a little of everything, but I don’t know what to do with them. And so they end up feeling more like facts and less like knowing someone.
There are some exceptions, however. The image of Shawn Mendes at the brink of a permanent injury, dejectedly cancelling his performance at São Paulo, and speaking through the robotic voice of his phone provides a window into a moment of vulnerability. When this scene appears, two minutes into the documentary, I am hooked. Okay, we are going to get to see what it’s like to be Shawn Mendes. But this storyline isn’t explored until the very end. The São Paulo storyline, I think, is the best of the documentary. What makes it work, better than rest, is that it picks an experience unique to his life, and deeply explores it.
From going to the doctor, suspecting that he can’t sing at the concert, realizing that he was going to have to cancel, to actually cancelling it, the movie really shows the event unfold. Seeing the musician wracked with disappointment all by himself, while his fans, though disappointed, at least didn’t have the added guilt and loneliness, was one of the most intimate parts of the documentary. Had it picked up on more moments and emotions like this, and fleshed them out, In Wonder would have offered a much more insightful perspective on its protagonist.
Watching the documentary was like getting to know Shawn Mendes as an acquaintance. He’s the guy at work who is always nice to you and sincere in what he says and does. You’re friends, but not really good friends. So, you’ve been to his wedding and made small talk with his parents, and on some rare occasions when you catch him on an especially bad day, he’ll share his problems with you. But on most days, you smile and nod and talk about the weather during lunch breaks. I just wish the documentary had given us more than that.
Enjoyed this review? Read our Dancing With The Devil review here
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