There’s a moment midway through the BTS concert film Burn the Stage: The Movie that feels prophetic. On the North American leg of their Wings tour — or 2017 BTS Live Trilogy Episode III: The Wings Tour to the BTS Army — all seven members of the K-Pop sensation walk past a poster for The Beatles. This crossing of musical icons happened last March, two months before the group’s Billboard Music Award win for “Top Social Artist” and nine before their first televised U.S. performance.
But where The Beatles’ arrival on the world stage was dependent on a U.S. audience (seemingly the right of passage for most things), BTS was already selling out massive arenas worldwide without help from the American mainstream. The deafening, teary-eyed crowds, however, bear a striking resemblance to the British Invasion. The world of pop music has changed; even as the internet fractures fandoms into various sub-cultures, the Bangtan Boys, or Bangtan Sonyeondan, have remained a uniting force. And they’re just getting started.
Burn the Stage is poetic, intimate and often hilarious. But one thing it certainly isn’t is an intro for non-fans. In fact, it isn’t being marketed to non-fans (if you’re among them, here’s a taste). The film, adapted from the eight-part YouTube Red series of the same name, outsold even One Direction: Where We Are upon its first release earlier in November, so much so that it returns to cinemas worldwide during the week of Dec. 5.
I saw Burn the Stage in Mumbai this month. We weren’t lucky enough to get the film the first time around due to censorship issues, but the BTS Army here is so dedicated that they not only convinced a major theater chain to bring the concert experience to India (the band has sadly never performed here) but the initial handful of listed screenings soon exploded to a full 45-city release. My 10:00 a.m. show was sold out. Everybody in the theater cheered at the Big Hit Entertainment logo, louder than superhero fans during the Marvel intro. And yes, V’s adorable Pomeranian Yeontan received the biggest applause of the morning.
The Marvel comparison is apt, given how Burn the Stage fits into the social-media era of cross-platform fandom and its attachment to long-form stories. Watching the film feels like following one small part of a continuing saga. Even new recruits to the BTS Army have likely followed the group’s origin on Bangtan Bomb, the web series which began in 2013. The film thus opts to deliver the group — rappers RM (Kim Namjoon) and Suga (Min Yoongi), street dancer J-Hope (Jung Hoseok), and vocalists Jin aka Worldwide Handsome (Kim Seokjin), Jimin (Park Jimin), V (Kim Taehyung) and Jungkook (Jeon Jungkook) — fully formed, both as individuals and as a well-oiled machine.
The film circumvents the energy and bombast of the group’s performances to show us the moments between the music. We get quick breaks amidst the mad rush of the stage, anchored by close-ups of cold towels and ice packs on injured necks, as assistants hastily re-apply make-up before the next performance. Like the band members themselves, the film doesn’t linger on these difficulties. Instead, it accepts them as a common (perhaps even necessary) fallout of being the hottest boy band on the planet.
The one notable letdown of Burn the Stage, however, is that it not only avoids the performance aspect (keeping us at a visual and auditory distance from the concerts) but does so despite feeling like it’s building to a musical climax. This climax, sadly, never arrives.
For fans who’ve never seen BTS perform live, this feels like an unfulfilled promise, especially for a boy band so uniquely in charge of its own music and message. The beat builds as the group is about to hit the stage, but when they emerge, the film often cuts to after each performance, having shown us mere snippets at best. At first, this seems like a neat way to pull us behind the scenes and create a foundational context for what goes in to each show before we get to experience it, though after the fourth or fifth build-up with no energy release, a mild frustration begins to set in.
The film does deliver on its primary focus: From rehearsals to closed-door meetings to band-only barbecues, watching BTS in their element is an utter delight. The film expects dedicated viewers to know enough about the boys that it doesn’t paint individual portraits, save for Suga, who takes the occasional break from the mayhem with a glass of wine, lounging in a comfy chair while the rest of the crew jumps into swimming pools or feeds each other straight off the grill. The group’s collective dynamic is just so joyful and uplifting. They may as well do this for every tour.
Visits to various countries on the year-long promotion are broken up by poems, either scrolled on-screen or narrated by the band themselves. They speak of time stretched out in front of them like oceans, infinite possibilities impeded by occasional hurdles of homesickness or injury. They’re all in their mid-twenties, so having to deal with physical limitations the way they do borders on unnerving, but what separates theirs from run-of-the-mill band stories is the sheer lack of ego and conflict.
The first time they point out each other’s mistakes, it’s so casual and direct that you’d be forgiven for expecting a fight. But that’s not who BTS is. They’re the mental health-positive, Love Yourself band who know that collective success depends on each individual’s well-being. During their downtime from rehearsal, they’re friends. They rib each other, but they also look out for each other’s happiness; a unique portrait of masculine affection, grounded in a playful intimacy impossible to fake for the camera. Even the subtitles attempt to remain as authentic, refusing to localize jokes and puns that don’t work when they aren’t in Korean. (The subs provide explainers for each joke, though they whiz by too quickly to catch.)
Sometimes, director Jun-Soo Park sits in on the band’s pre-show meetings; “Bang Bangtan!” the band yells in unison, hyping each other up before they take the stage. Other times, we’re given snippets of their personal vlogs as they write songs, or exercise, or hang out in hotel rooms, continuing the tradition of the band’s personal web-based narrative. The crowds show up in droves, waving flashlight globes that sync up with the live performance — a visualization of the energy emerging from the stage and washing over the audience — and the boys return every bit of affection they’re shown.
RM, the band’s English mouthpiece (self-taught by watching endless amounts of Friends), even delivers an important aside to the camera. He talks of how much the group loves the effort put in by fans to understand Korean, and how they hope to return the favor by closing each show in the local vernacular. While it’s all a part of the band’s international packaging, it comes from a place of authenticity and rare artistic autonomy for K-pop. It speaks to the space they occupy in the global consciousness, going the extra mile to respectfully unite people both through language, and beyond it.
Ultimately, the lack of a performance presented end-to-end matters little, especially in an age where fans have probably seen the whole tour on YouTube. The BTS Army isn’t about to complain. Not when they’re being given what feels like an exclusive DVD extra unavailable online, in the form an 84-minute journey spanning a whole year. That’s a year of blood, sweat, tears, laughter and support that fans can experience alongside their idols.
What’s more, the boys seem to return the adoration in equal measure, doing their utmost to make sure scripted lines about following your dreams sound authentic, even in languages they don’t speak. The film is more comforting than viscerally exciting, though that’s hardly a bad thing when the comfort comes from global unity. Most concert films capture the present zeitgeist, but Burn the Stage feels like it’s telling us about a better future.
Burn the Stage: The Movie screens in the U.S. on Dec. 5 and 6.