When pop bands get to a certain level of success – hit singles and albums, stacks of awards and sellout tours, it’s safe to say they’ve reached national ubiquity and adoration. It is therefore not out the question, then, to mark this transition into absolute phenomenon via their first big screen outing.
But it’s a perilous old road, as history has taught us; for every A Hard Day’s Night or Spiceworld, there’s an Honest or Just My Luck. But no one – at least, to our knowledge – had ever attempted a film quite like the one JLS first released on this very day 10 years ago.
To tell the story of it requires us to go back to just under a year before it came out, to the summer of 2010. At this point in time, Oritsé, Marvin, Aston and JB had never been bigger. With two number one singles, a clutch of BRIT and MOBO awards and a million selling debut album already to their name, they were about to begin unveiling their second album, Outta This World, which had already seen them add a third number one to their pile (‘The Club Is Alive’).
It was around the time they were promoting that first chart topper off the new album, that they appeared on World Cup Live, an irreverent and light hearted ITV chat and analysis show about the games in that year’s football tournament in South Africa, hosted by James Corden. They took part in a little sketch on the show with James – himself a self confessed boyband geek – doing the routine to ‘Beat Again’.
It was on that show they first met James’ friend and colleague, Ben Winston (pictured below with the band), who was director on that series. The son of Professor Robert Winston, his production company, Fulwell73, that he’d set up with life long friends Leo Pearlman, Gabe Turner and Ben Turner, had had their breakthrough three years previously in 2007, with In The Hands of the Gods, a film based on a true story about five British football fans and their journey to Argentina, in the hopes of meeting their hero, Diego Maradona.
It had been a critically acclaimed success, and now he was on the lookout for his next film project. Prior to that though, JLS, James and Ben were to work together again on This Is JLS, an hour long ‘Audience With’ type variety show for ITV, with them performing songs old and new for an audience of fans, family and friends, comedy sketches, surprising some of the fans who had been invited, and also duetting with Kylie Minogue.
Screened before that year’s X Factor final, it was a huge ratings hit. It was around about the same time that the 40 date arena tour for the Outta This World album around the UK and Ireland was getting under way. Now things were moving up a level. With Fulwell73 and legendary music video and film director Andy Morahan on board, they hopped on the tour bus and filming began on a big screen venture for JLS.
Initially, Winston and Morahan noted that the plan had been to create something that was a bit like a modern day take on Le Mans, the famous 1971 film starring Steve McQueen; a zany mixture of fiction and reality that was tied into the theme of their live show, where you could never be quite sure what was scripted and what wasn’t, with the Outta This World album as its soundtrack. But as filming began, it became apparent that something else was a far more engaging prospect and potential winner.
Namely, telling a real story, one that made sense to their audience and the wider one beyond that. Not a fictitious one, but how four mates from London, Croydon and Peterborough had got together and, against all the odds, somehow managed to become the biggest boyband of their generation in just three short years. After all, they were the most successful band off The X Factor at that point. And yet some stubborn critics still thought they were the result of a Petri dish growth concocted by Simon Cowell.
What then emerged was the documentary, and that was Eyes Wide Open. Partly named after a song on the then new album called ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (which became its third single with Tinie Tempah, who joins them as a surprise guest on the performance shown in the film), it was aptly named, as it gave probably the most honest, up close look at a pop band’s success right from at the centre of it all.
The stall is set out right from the beginning of the film; the boys are opening their tour to a packed house at the O2 Arena in London, dangled above the ballistic crowd whilst flying in a sports car, over the top of which is Marvin talking about how their lives had changed and how they tried to stay grounded: “It’s very easy to get caught up in the hype … And you have to work hard to keep a grip on that reality, which isn’t always easy … We can just go to the cinema, we can just go shopping, but it’s gonna be hard work.”
All the while as he speaks, it then switches to footage of them being mobbed by screaming fans at Blackpool Tower whilst on tour, or doing a book signing at a WHSmith in Newcastle whilst near hysterical fans are overcome with emotion, as a pragmatic JB says “It doesn’t matter how long we do this for … I will never understand making girls cry”.
And all this, while looking firstly like they were enjoying and embracing it, but secondly looking remarkably calm about it all. Not a hint of an ego in sight, in an environment where you would imagine it’d be very difficult not to gain one. It’s a bit like that old saying about storms – it’s actually in the eye of it where everything is together, with the craziness and its warp and weft going on around it.
It cuts away from the hyper realised, 3D shot fantasy world of the concert footage – all singing, all dancing (all backflipping in Aston’s case), horror house stylings, suspended catwalks, pyrotechnics and even a robot (Titan, who appears during the song ‘Superhero’) to raw, unedited camcorder footage from a slightly shabby looking rehearsal room in Fulham, filmed back when they weren’t known as JLS, but instead as Unique Famous and Outrageous (or UFO for short).
Huddled around Oritsé’s laptop on their tour bus in one scene and reminiscing on the footage shown, Aston observes how, when they first formed, managerless and without a record deal or songs of their own, they introduced a fine scheme, “where we had rehearsal schedule from 10 til 6 on a Saturday, or 6 til 10 on a Tuesday night or Thursday night. And what were we rehearsing for? Nothing! But if you turned up late, you had to pay for the whole session!”
The sense of achieving a dream they still hadn’t quite got their head around achieving is also prevalent in scenes like a funny one backstage with their dancers, where Oritsé recounts how he once chased after Michael Jackson’s car when he was in London for the BRIT Awards, and, wanting to be remembered, shouted his own name repeatedly through the superstar’s open car window when stuck in traffic.
Taking the opportunity to do a documentary mixed with concert footage for JLS’ first big screen outing was a bold risk, particularly for audiences that pretty much saw mixing the worlds of pop and film as verboten, but it was one that paid off handsomely. Initially only set to be on screens for one day only, on Friday 3rd June 2011, it was extended to be shown across cinemas nationwide for that weekend and the following weekend due to demand.
As with everything else they touched at this time, it became a runaway hit, netting over half a million pounds at the UK box office to make it, at the time, the best attended music cinema event ever in UK film history. It is the only film I have ever gone to see at the cinema twice; once on opening weekend, and again the following weekend. It found similar success once released on DVD that December, topping the Christmas video chart to boot. Even the critics were impressed, noting that it was ‘Frank … and often touching’ as well as being full of ‘Funny moments … and emotional clips’.
Others have followed in the years since – Katy Perry did her Part of Me film, likewise Michael Bublé did his concert / documentary piece Tour Stop 143. Ben Winston and Fulwell73 would even do it all again a couple of years later, this time with Morgan Spurlock at the directorial helm, for One Direction on their film This Is Us.
But Eyes Wide Open proved one thing that has always remained resolutely true about JLS; defying expectations being one, and proving detractors wrong for another. But also that, in a time when pop fans the world over were getting more clued up, they put themselves ahead of the game in how they transitioned from one field to another (the charts to the big screen) and reaped the rewards for it.
JLS: Eyes Wide Open is available to stream on Apple TV+.
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