Film

The Allure and Challenges of K-Pop’s Biggest Group

Bring the Soul follows the Korean boy band BTS on its recent world tour, showing the members’ incredible grind and perseverance.

From Bring the Soul (courtesy Trafalgar Releasing)

Bring the Soul, the second documentary on Korean boy band BTS’s Love Yourself world tour, is less a concert movie than a chronicle of the logistics of touring a major-scale pop act. Intimately filmed by Park Jun-soo in Pennebaker-esque verité, the film follows the Hallyu septet as they rehearse, take red-eye flights across continents and oceans, and otherwise power through the exhaustion of their global tour. The interspersed scenes of their performances act as punctuation to the arduous task of preparation, moments in which the haggard and jetlagged young men snap into focus and put on their carefully choreographed, overwhelming productions. These concerts in turn only further tire the members of the band, who give so much that merely four shows into the 22-date North American and European tour, they all look on the verge of collapse.

The wearying grind of the tour clashes with the effervescence of the band’s lyrical preoccupations, which have shifted from youthful social commentary about topics such as bullying and the academic pressures of South Korean education toward uplifting messages of personal empowerment. This has been matched by an equally dynamic shift in sound, from their initial hip-hop-oriented style to an all-encompassing interest in genres ranging from R&B to EDM to esoteric flourishes of Latin-American pop and jazz. In five short years, BTS has gone from a modestly successful outfit frequently dismissed as a novelty act in their homeland to the most successful Korean artists in history, paragons of self-sufficiency in an industry not known for artistic freedom. The Love Yourself albums that prompted this tour represent the culmination of that stylistic and lyrical evolution, and the open-hearted sincerity of the band’s ambition demands a level of emotional dedication to each live performance that, ironically, drains the band even as their audiences are energized.

From Bring the Soul (courtesy Trafalgar Releasing)

Framed around the band reminiscing about the Western leg of their tour after their final stop in Paris, the film sometimes comes across as a meeting of veterans swapping war stories. Flashbacks show how every mistake and setback drives the singers to panic. After missing a note in “Euphoria” during the tour opener in Seoul, Jungkook is moved to apologize to the crowd, and he cries backstage after the show. Kim “V” Taehyung is so horrified to lose his voice before the final Paris concert that he spends the show silently mouthing along to the lyrics in a shell-shocked daze. The band’s dedication is reflective of the intense crucible of the Korean music industry, which recruits potential stars in adolescence and puts them through years of relentless training, rigorous competition, and even plastic surgery to cull all but the most presentable and practiced wannabes into packaged stars. Though spared some of the worst excesses of the K-pop industry (their label, BigHit Entertainment, affords its artists significantly more creative input than mega-labels like YG), the men of BTS, the oldest of whom have only just reached their mid-20s, have already endured years of stressful conditioning. Even as one of the dominant pop acts working today, they fear that any slip-up could bring the whole enterprise crashing down. The business of being superstars gives them all constant anxiety.

But pop has always straddled a line between commercial product and individualized art, and the behind-the-scenes footage shows just how personally the band members have internalized their music’s message of self-love to counteract their own self-doubt. Each one will be hyper-critical about himself, only to offer immediate reassurance and validation to any bandmate who expresses similar thoughts about his own flaws. Their ability to remain positive and playful lends the film a surprisingly jocular tone, and one can see how the young men have turned what could be feel-good pablum into an earnest philosophy. Band leader Kim “RM” Namjoon alone has gone from an anxious youth, penning songs like the suicidal “Always,” to a literal ambassador for positivity in only three years. When he reflects on how much he’s grown by the age of 25, he sounds legitimately wise and not hopelessly naïve.

From Bring the Soul (courtesy Trafalgar Releasing)

Bring the Soul can be brutal in its observations of the stresses and pain of the music business, right down to the haunting post-credits coda of BTS, just weeks removed from the conclusion of their final tour leg through Asia, boarding a plane to go right back to North America to promote their new EP. Yet the film is fundamentally affirmational, not only of BTS’s place in the current cultural moment, but also of K-pop’s breakthrough into the worldwide mainstream. As an interviewer notes when talking to the band at the Grammy Museum, BTS sings in Korean to English-speaking audiences, who know all of the words. BTS is at the vanguard of a musical export that, contrary to fears of outsized Western bias in globalized culture, has not only remained true to itself, but has exerted considerable influence on contemporary Western pop with its maximalist sound and lyrical idiosyncrasy.

No document of BTS would be complete without an acknowledgement of their colossal and frenzied fanbase, the “ARMY.” Park includes interviews with fans, who movingly discuss how the band’s music has helped them to realize their own self-worth. But that relationship is reciprocal, and Bring the Soul captures how the band equally draws strength from its fans. Much has been written to explain the appeal of K-pop in markets normally inhospitable to non-English acts, but RM sums things up near the end of a London show when he stands on stage and urges the fans to “Use me, use BTS” to help them realize who they are and why they are worth loving. In four words, he sums up the basic appeal of all pop, to act as a mirror of fans’ anxieties, fantasies, and hopes. From that perspective, the success of K-pop is no mystery at all. It’s only fitting that the band that’s crossed over in the biggest way happened to be the most positive, least cynical group on the planet today.

From Bring the Soul (courtesy Trafalgar Releasing)

Bring the Soul is in theaters now.

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