Review: ‘I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story’

Hot Docs 2018

6 mins read

I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story
(Australia, 96 min.)
Dir. Jessica Leski
Programme: Nightvisions (World Premiere)


There is, like, a science to making the perfect boy band. Seriously.

Dara, a 33-year-old brand strategist from Australia and proud Take That fangirl, breaks down the factors that define and unite boybands throughout the history of popular music. Standing before a whiteboard with the intensity, determination, and semi-seriousness of a PhD student constructing her dissertation, Dara lays out the evidence. Boy bands typically feature 3-5 young (but not too young) heartthrobs who make girls swoon with their sugary lyrics and pre-packaged looks. Each band has the hottie, the non-threatening “older brother” figure, the bad boy, the musician (who may be combined with one of the first three), and the forgettable one. In other words, each boy band has a John, a Paul, a George, and a Ringo with some degree of deviation.

Embrace your inner 13-year-old girl (if you have one) with_ I Used to Be Normal_. This fun doc probes the peculiar lifestyle and mass hysteria associated with boyband fandom. Director Jessica Leski trots the globe to discuss the male idols with their adoring fans young and old. Boyband fandom isn’t rocket science and it’s also a lot more enjoyable.

It all starts with the Beatles. The fab four changed music with their roles, personas, and styles. Susan, a 64-year-old movie producer from Melbourne, recalls the height of Beatlemania and the days when pictures of John Lennon made her weak in the knees. Susan still has all her scraps of Beatles memorabilia—merchandise, press clippings, fan club letters—and she shows them to Leski with the enthusiasm of her teenage self. Her collection also illustrates how boy bands share common elements and are results of corporate tinkering and PR spin. The Beatles were a formula for mass production. Artists or products, though, they still moved the girls to tears.

Just take Sadia, a 25-year-old writer in San Francisco, California, who rejects the idea that Backstreet’s back. She insists the Boys never went away. Sadia relates her experience growing up as a giddy Backstreet Boys fan and recalls extensive (if borderline stalker-y) concert tours and cruises where she literally followed the Backstreet Boys around the world to fill the void she felt at home.

Elif, finally, a 16-year-old Long Island student, epitomizes the most recent explosion of fangirl craziness with her obsession for One Direction. This die-hard Directioner gives the film its title with a laugh-out-loud reaction video in which her friends recorded her bursting into histrionic fits of tears listening to the band’s latest album. “I used to be normal!” she cries with full awareness that her mania over five boys she doesn’t really know is a little odd. The viral clip lets girls around the world know they aren’t alone in their adulation for Liam, Harry, Louis, Zayn, and/or Niall.

I Used to Be Normal can be an amusing lark of pop culture anthropology when it shows the extremes to which fans go for their idols. Leski shows a great sense of humour with the archival footage she selects to accompany the fangirls’ stories. Old music videos and MTV chats chart the history of bad fashion sense and pre-American Idol manufacturing. Try not to giggle when the Backstreet Boys dance in the rain to offer girls a PG-rated outlet for their raging hormones.

Loving music made and marketed for teen girls might not sound like a conventional adulthood, yet Leski shows that an unabashed passion can be healthy. Dara, for example, talks about how her love for Take That’s Gary Barlow helped her identify as a lesbian and how coming out as gay ultimately helped her be a loud and proud boyband fan. Sadia shares how doting over the Backstreet Boys offered an outlet for her to let her sexuality develop while growing up in a relatively conservative Muslim home. Susan recalls getting through hard times with the words and music of the Beatles. Elif adds that letting out shrill screams and tears is a cathartic release that everyone should do.

The film challenges the idea of normalcy by offering each fangirl a warm hug and challenging viewers to laugh at their passion, rather than with them. Leski unites the fangirls with the shared experience of finding themselves within the cheesy lyrics and frosted tips of the boybands and shows how the songs of love and heartache provide sweet relief during the troubles of adolescence. The music of boybands might be flat-out terrible, but one appreciates their appeal after seeing I Used to Be Normal. The screaming Paul Anka fans in Lonely Boy suddenly make sense.

I Used to Be Normal screens:
-Fri, May 4 at 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
-Sun, May 6 at 12:30 PM at Hart House

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit for more info.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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