Written by Barry Levitt
Director: Jessica Laski
‘I Used to be Normal – A Boyband Fangirl Story’ is the surprising coming of age story of four diverse women who have had their lives dramatically changed by their love of a boyband – Backstreet Boys, One Direction, Take That and The Beatles. (IMDb)
Fandom is a magical thing – it can expand beyond a simple interest into a full-blown obsession, as a means to exploring a whole new world, whether its a film, game, song or sports team. However, outside perceptions can often impact the way people see a certain kind of fandom – for example, obsessing over a sports team is seen as acceptable, while obsessing over certain musicians – especially boybands – is rather taboo. I Used to be Normal…A Boyband Fangirl Story takes an in-depth look at the boyband phenomenon, looking at four die-hard female fans spanning three generations. Despite the bad rap girls who love boybands often get, Jessica Laski’s film treats its subjects with a great respect, filling every scene with love, admiration and tenderness.
I Used to be Normal… investigates the lives of four women – two American, two Australian – ranging from ages 16 to 64. There’s teenager Elif (16, One Direction), journalist Sadia (25, Backstreet Boys), brand strategist Dara (33, Take That) and movie producer Susan (64, The Beatles). Dara, who is exceptionally engaging, takes viewers through her theorised boyband formula – a sort of Boy Band 101 – in a key sequence. According to Dara, boybands are a group of three to five young men between the ages of 17 and 21. They can sing about love, about never sex, and cannot be related.
The film is imbued with a wonderful sense of playfulness, with numerous animated sequences highlighting the women’s boyband fantasies. One particularly amusing one comes from Sadia, who fantasies about Nick Carter teaching her how to swim in a pool overlooking with an ocean-view. Later in the film, Sadia takes swimming lessons, though tragically without Nick Carter by her side.
Laski’s film does a lovely job of showing that while boyband fangirls can have a hive mentality, they’re all individuals with their own loves, issues and lives. Susan has fond memories of Beatlemania that tore through the world in the 60s, but also explains how the Beatles music has helped her deal with fifty years of highs and lows. Sadia’s love of the Backstreet Boys came into conflict with her muslim upbringing. Dara discovered her sexuality when she continued her love of Take That into adulthood, and particularly her affinity for Gary Barlow.
The film looks at its subjects over a number of years, which is most illuminating in the case of 16-year-old Elif. At the beginning, Elif is a hugely energetic girl who speaks of the One Direction members as if they are close friends. She even gives the film its title, when watching a One Direction video she starts to cry and proclaims “I Used to be Normal!” Elif is last seen as a somewhat melancholic young woman, dealing with the harsh realisation that dreams do not always become reality.
That being said, Laski’s film is incredibly thoughtful, heartwarming and its joy is electric. There is plenty of archival footage, music and fan art in addition to the talking heads that dominate. I Used to be Normal… is an extraordinary experience for anyone who loves boybands. The audience at the London Film Festival was unlike any other film I attended – filled with cheers, laughter, tears and pure, unfiltered joy. It should be stressed that even if you don’t personally love boybands, or have any affiliation, anyone who’s ever been passionate about anything will find so much to love here. This film is one of the great surprises of the festival, and part of what makes festival experiences such a joy to behold. Seek this film out and watch – you won’t regret it!