In Wonder of ‘In Wonder’

I’ve been a fangirl for longer than I can remember. A fangirl, by definition, takes it a notch further than just a fan, obsessing, swooning and often worshipping the person in question. I was a One Direction fangirl (still am, mind you), but after they disbanded and a reunion didn’t seem probable in the near future, I had this void in my life that I needed to fill. I had to replace hours and hours of boyband talk with something, or someone else. And thus began the Shawn Mendes Saga. Quite naturally then, I was elated when he announced the release of his Netflix Original documentary, In Wonder. “The documentary follows Shawn on his 104-show tour around the world after the release of his self-titled third album. It features concert footage interspersed with various other behind the scenes moments as the camera tags Shawn around hotels, backstage bathrooms, car rides and trips back home to his hometown of Toronto,” notes Haseeb Ahmed, a long time friend and my personal editor who painfully watched the documentary with me.

Born in Toronto and raised in Pickering, Canada, Shawn Mendes rose to fame (almost overnight) via the TikTok of 2014, Vine. As his wikipedia page will tell you – and I know this by heart – his six second covers of popular songs caught the attention of a certain Andrew Gertler, who was also new to the artist management industry. Mendes quickly went from performing cover songs in front of a handful of people to performing songs from his three studio albums in arenas and stadiums. In Wonder documents this journey, which by all means is an incredible feat, but nothing other more iconic artists have not partaken in. 

Mendes is barely 22, and already an A-lister celebrity. He owns a massive condo in Toronto that overlooks the Rogers Centre, a Tesla and at least 7 functioning pairs of airpods. He’s been invited to two MET Gala events, and has several Grammy nominations. He sold out Rogers Centre to 50,000 people. Mendes has endorsed brands like Emporio Armani, Calvin Klein and Roots Canada and has partnered with Tim Hortons. Mendes’ fame is not a joke, but whether it is worth enough to make a 90 minute documentary is highly debatable. 

“To me, the documentary shines the most when replaying those bits of concert footage. Mendes’ shows himself to be a decent performer on stage and the lighting, music and general concert atmosphere come together to create something quite nice,” says Haseeb.
As someone who has watched Mendes in concert, I can confirm. His showmanship is commendable, and it is meant to be enjoyable for an audience larger than deluge of teenage girls at his shows. His prowess was further proven by the live in concert movie netflix released the day after the documentary was released. Mendes had all 50,000 people at the Rogers Centre at his fingertips, making them dance, sing, jump and cry whenever he wanted. 

Mendes performing at Olympiahalle, Munich, Germany in March 2019. Photo By: Ushashi Basu

But Haseeb and I were, nonetheless, baffled at the need for the documentary. What was Mendes trying to convey to his audience? That he’s just another small town boy who accidentally fell into the rabbit hole of fame? If yes, then he gloriously failed. Not only because he admits in the documentary that he is terrified that one day, when he tells people he’s a normal boy, they will stop coming to his shows, but also because it is known among the fandom that he suffers – physically and mentally – from his constant need to be validated by his fans and the powerful personas within the music industry. He is loved by everyone in the industry, and all they ever have to say about him is that he has a heart of gold and that he is the most humble musician to exist. This documentary says otherwise. In Wonder is all too polished; the scene where Mendes is crying for having cancelled a show due to laryngitis seems entirely staged and a very poor effort at crying. Even the third person perspective on Mendes comes from either his family members, his best friend, or his girlfriend Camila Cabello. Mendes sounds extremely pretentious and tone-deaf on several occasions as well. 

“We never get to see anything other than the sanitized, ‘social-media friendly’ persona of Shawn that we’ve already seen on numerous occasions,” continues Haseeb. There is a certain level of jumping on the bandwagon and doing something productive during quarantine in the documentary, and it is far from being a raw, unfiltered insight into Mendes’ otherwise oh-so-normal life. 

In spite of having previously unseen footage from Mendes’s life that fans will thoroughly enjoy, the documentary, in its execution, is rather unremarkable. “Unfortunately, simply having well shot and edited concert footage cannot be all that a documentary has to offer and here is where things fall apart. The documentary goes over the major topics like his background, his relationship with his family, his anxiety and his relationship with Cabello, but it does so in such a shallow and surface level way that the viewer never really gains anything meaningful from them. There is a scene where Shawn walks through an open field of sorts with his sister, reminiscing about the past. The intention is to provide some insight into his origins but it simply feels too mawkish to elicit any emotion from the viewer other than amusement. Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the somewhat perplexing decision to shoot part of the documentary on film in a narrower 4:3 aspect ratio. Perhaps the goal was to bring a more retro, almost ‘vintage’ feel to certain parts of the documentary but the transitions between this and the wider aspect ratio footage shot digitally were so random at times, it ended up detracting from the experience rather than enhancing it,” says Haseeb.

Having been barraged with messages and voice-notes from a fan like me, Haseeb realized that he “didn’t really know much about the man going into this documentary. In fact, that was one of my primary reasons for watching it. I had hoped that by the end of it I would finally have some insight into who this plain scoop of vanilla really is. One can therefore imagine my disappointment when I realized that despite watching an almost 90 minute long documentary, I was still no closer to figuring him out than I was at the beginning.”

It doesn’t even feel like you’re watching a documentary but rather, a lengthy promotional video of sorts…let’s face it, that’s exactly what this is

Haseeb Ahmed on In Wonder

In Wonder leaves one in wonder of Mendes’ career trajectory, and whether it has nowhere to go anymore. Provided that he wishes to sell out even more stadiums, produce ten more studio albums and go many more world tours, wouldn’t it make sense to make a documentary some more years down the line, encompassing all his achievements? Perhaps shed light into a few scandals even? It seems rather unnecessary to have produced this documentary this early in his career. Unless, of course, he and his management believe that it is over for good. 

“At times, it doesn’t even feel like you’re watching a documentary but rather, a lengthy promotional video of sorts. This is rather fitting because let’s face it, that’s exactly what this is,” critiques Haseeb. To have released this documentary two weeks before his much awaited fourth studio album seems like nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Perhaps, an effort to make him relevant after the year-long break he took, frolicking in Miami with his high profile girlfriend and creating an album that has not rocketed into most charts, unlike his previous albums.

In our humble opinion, In Wonder a desperate attempt to be relatable, which makes the documentary all the more pretentious and contradictory. As the ardent Mendes’ fan that I am- or should I say, was – disappointment is rather an understatement. Mendes is talented, dedicated and hard working. He does a fantastic job of displaying his artistic skill, but this documentary is not it. 

In Wonder and Shawn Mendes: Live in Concert is available worldwide on Netflix.

Haseeb Ahmed is a 23 year old Meteorology student at the University of Trento in Italy. Having previously graduated with a BSc in Physics from Jacobs University Bremen, Haseeb is an avid film fan and enjoys photography, playing the Legend of Zelda and bopping to Carly Rae Jepsen. Read his In Conversation interview here.