Pop music fans flocked to their laptops and Apple TVs on Monday to watch Shawn Mendes embark on his newest project: releasing his documentary, “In Wonder,” on Netflix. The hour-and-a-half documentary follows Mendes through the ups and downs of his “Shawn Mendes: The Tour” 2019 world tour.
Die-hard fans were likely overjoyed to get a glimpse into Mendes’ daily life and a sneak peek at some of the songs that’ll be appearing on Mendes’ fourth album, “Wonder,” set to be released Dec. 4, but for the average viewer, the documentary is hardly engaging and fails to have any real impact.
The documentary opens on a high note with shots of Mendes heading out on the stage of Rogers Stadium to play in front of over 20,000 screaming fans. A voice-over by Mendes lets audiences know that no matter what it looks like and despite all of his monstrous musical success, he’s still just a normal guy who loves music.
However, his message is less than convincing as Mendes seems to forget that normal, everyday people aren’t usually the stars of their own documentaries that follow the success of their self-titled tour. Rather than serve as an awe-inspiring setup for Mendes’ life story, these shots actually evoke a strange sense of nostalgia for a time only a few months ago when concerts and live music were still happening before the onset of COVID-19.
The documentary then teases the low point of the story and Mendes’ entire musical career: the uber-dramatic, earth-shattering moment when Mendes lost his voice before one of his shows. The documentary then flashes back to three months before the incident to show the viewer how Mendes got to this devastating moment.
It’s at this point that viewers may begin to ask the all-important question: what’s the point of this documentary? Usually, a musician’s documentary is either a virtual concert with some behind-the-scenes content for fans who may not have been able to attend the in-person version or a tell-all to give musicians a chance to explain their side of controversies and scandals that they’ve been involved in.
“In Wonder” doesn’t advertise itself as a virtual concert, and there’s little substantial live footage to make fans feel like they’re really watching Mendes perform. The piece leans toward taking the tell-all route, but the problem is that Mendes has nothing to tell. He’s too clean-cut and transparent for the drama and tension the documentary format seems to crave.
There aren’t any arrests, drug busts, DUIs, contentious breakups, public breakdowns or terrible feuds to taint Mendes’ golden boy image. The one real dark spot in Mendes’ career, his battle to overcome anxiety and depression, has proved unproblematic as the singer has been candid about his mental health, using it as fuel and inspiration for his songs.
Mendes has maintained a “pure” and unassuming persona since the start of his career, and “In Wonder” reveals that there’s not much more to Mendes than meets the eye. He’s simply a good-natured guy who likes music who’s trying to navigate fame, fortune and mental health in the best way he can. Needless to say, that’s not the greatest premise for an in-depth, tell-all documentary.
Director Grant Singer was therefore left with a pretty bland narrative to weave together. He chose to try and pit the uber-famous image of Shawn the superstar singer against Shawn the average guy who likes to hang out with his sister on soccer fields at sunset and mooch meals off his parents. However, the problem Singer runs into is there isn’t enough of a divide between the Shawns. Mendes is very much just the boy next door turned popstar. He has no persona or image he projects. He’s simply Shawn all the time.
That said, much of the documentary is just Mendes fooling around and saying very poetic, deep things in his voice-over. With little material to work with, Singer instead tries to weave in pieces of the romance between Mendes and his longtime friend, fellow popstar Camila Cabello, that broke the internet in 2019. Although it’s obvious Cabello means the world to Mendes and that she’s his first real experience with love, their awkward PDA and the disjointed way their love story intersects with the rest of Mendes’ story makes the parts with Cabello feel like a set of embarrassing home videos that were never meant to make it into the public sphere.
The only real redeeming factor for the piece is the artistry Mendes displays when it comes to music. Fan or not, one can’t deny Mendes’ talent and commitment to his music. Viewers are left to marvel at Mendes’ command of the stage, his vocal precision and his know-how in the recording booth. Mendes shows up any skeptics who may consider him only a pretty face, smashing expectations with his lightning-fast guitar riffs, expert songwriting skills and Freddie Mercury-esque performance style.
It isn’t until the end of the documentary that the viewer sees a glimpse of the drama that the whole piece has been leading up to. When Mendes blows out his voice after one of his shows, he’s forced to cancel a stadium show in Brazil, disappointing 40,000 expectant fans. Mendes breaks down backstage and FaceTimes his family, heartbroken that he’s let his fans down. Although that’s not a very common problem, young people can relate to feeling in over their heads and out of their depth in the “real world” as they overthink their situations and believe a simple roadblock is the end of the world.
Mendes cites this moment as a huge turning point for him as he realized he “couldn’t pretend to be Superman all the time.” For Mendes, that may feel like a huge shift in the story, but for viewers, it feels like an anti-climactic decrescendo as they realize the real action and struggle of the documentary occurs in Mendes’ head and not out in the open for everyone to see. At this point, fans see that “In Wonder” is really just a glorified story about growing up and discovering who one really is.
In the end, all that viewers really learn from “In Wonder” is that Mendes pretty much has a perfect life. He’s a grounded, well-rounded guy who gets to live his dream, date the love of his life and make millions while doing it. The documentary has little drama, tension or real substance. It skims over all the interesting parts of his life, like his cataclysmic rise to fame and his early struggles with mental health, and only shows one year of his life that’s been like all the other years in his intense career and likely will be like many of the following years.
The documentary actually leaves viewers strangely uneasy as they’re left wondering when Mendes’ perfect life will hit a snag or begin to spiral out of control like it does for so many young celebrities.
Apart from its exploration of the songwriting and recording process and its unintentional bittersweet flashbacks to a pre-COVID-19 time of concerts and live music, “In Wonder” does little for viewers who aren’t interested in sobbing for an hour and a half over the fact that Mendes is no longer on the market and likely won’t be any time soon.
Contact Alexandra Dauchess at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture and Instagram @breeze_culture.