Netflix’s latest pop-star documentary is a bit too treacly and devoid of conflict to dig into the complexities of its subject’s career.
“I’m just a guy and I love music,” Shawn Mendes tells us in the first few minutes of Shawn Mendes: In Wonder, the latest in Netflix’s recent wave of original pop star documentaries.
This turns out to be the film’s central argument, and one that—global stardom aside—more or less checks out. The youth pastor-y Vine star-turned-recording artist may have a horde of (mostly young, female) fans that number in the millions and sob in his presence, but he’s also an everyguy from small-town Canada who has a manifestation journal and loves the smell of his childhood pillow. (We’re treated to no fewer than 15 seconds of him burying his face in it.)
In Wonder is the debut feature from director Grant Singer, who’s best known for his music video work—including for Camila Cabello, the artist formerly of Fifth Harmony who’s been dating Mendes for the last year and a half. The film is less interested in recounting Mendes’s upbringing and rise to fame than it is in squaring point A with point B. (Vine is only ever mentioned in passing.) It contains many of the same ingredients as the ones like it that Netflix keeps churning out: a visit to the artist’s old stomping grounds (Pickering, Ontario, in this case), glimpses of them at work and with their loved ones, and as much home video footage as can be supplied. The interview that structures the film has Mendes sitting on a white couch in his luxury Toronto condo, the CN Tower looming in the background.
Singer’s film follows Mendes as he tours to promote his self-titled album through most of 2019, and as he begins work on his forthcoming album, Wonder. Oh yeah, Mendes has an album out next week. That’s ostensibly the main reason why the film has been made; we gradually move from him describing Wonder’s intended vibe as an “overdose of love” to him assembling several of its tracks with his collaborators. There’s also the surprise feature-length concert film that hit Netflix Wednesday, filmed during the Toronto stop of his tour last year. But In Wonder also seems intent on dispelling a number of rumors that have plagued Mendes’s career so far.
Especially as compared to, say, Joe Alwyn’s relative absence in Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana, the Netflix documentary about Taylor Swift, Cabello is strikingly present in In Wonder. Since going public as a couple last year, she and Mendes have dodged rumors that the relationship is a publicity stunt. (The going public happened to coincide with their 2019 collaboration, “Señorita.”)
Without exactly uttering it out loud, the film doesn’t so much quietly put the rumor to bed as actively rebut it. The pair, we’re told, have known each other for as long as half a decade, and—in what’s sure to be a bit of a bombshell for fans—Mendes reveals that the love songs in his catalog are practically all about her. He walks around in the film wearing her official merch, and they’re sure to whisper sweet nothings into each other’s ears while mic’d. These scenes, of course, also work to discourage further speculation surrounding Mendes’s sexuality, which he’s openly been quite bothered by. Put differently, the film is telling as to what he’d prefer not to take with him into the Wonder era.
Perhaps owing to this snapshot approach to its subject, In Wonder is curiously devoid of conflict, and this is its biggest problem. Mendes says that he was never really doubted by anyone growing up—not his parents, not his music teacher. If there were obstacles on his ascent to stardom, we don’t hear about them, except to learn that he was on the shier side as a kid and still struggles with anxiety.
In Wonder is curiously devoid of conflict, and this is its biggest problem.
All Singer is really given to work with is Mendes stretching his voice to its “breaking point” towards the end of his tour, an event that led to him tearfully canceling the second of two shows in São Paolo, Brazil. (He was back on stage three days later, though we of course don’t see this.) I’m not wishing any additional conflict on him, to be clear, but it does stick out that there are zero stakes in the film. At this moment in his 22-year-old life and roughly six-year career, Mendes is simply too introspective, polite, and cheesily in love for any real drama.
But in case you aren’t put off by that (or one baffling “Gimme Shelter” needle drop that comes towards the film’s end), In Wonder is a perfectly watchable and even pretty endearing portrait of Mendes. It leaves no doubt that his success—in addition to anything else—is founded on genuine musicianship and artistry. Meticulous in the studio and seemingly taking inspiration from everywhere, the scenes of his songwriting, composing, and recording sessions are the heart and soul of Singer’s film.
Shawn Mendes: In Wonder is currently streaming on Netflix.