Review: BTS ‘Burn the Stage’ debuts

By Nadine Kam I

While watching the BTS Wings Tour 2017 documentary “Burn the Stage,” I couldn’t help but wonder who it was made for.

It wasn’t meant for anyone unfamiliar with the band. There were no subtitles with names of the members, so there was an assumption of familiarity. Brief footage of the group’s younger years came at the end, so even though the film tried to explain the band’s phenomenal rise to success in the west last year, the new follower would not have had a clue about the extent of the group’s real struggles and the animosity BTS faced when they debuted in South Korea five years ago as an entity too raw for K-pop’s “factory-made” culture, too glossy and soft for the music underground, for whom R.M. and Suga were viewed as sell-outs.

For a concert tour movie, there was a lot of general stage footage, but nothing particularly visceral that gave a true sense of BTS’s dynamism, exacting choreography and power on stage. The casual observer would get a better sense of that from watching any fan-made phone vid on YouTube.

Certainly, it was made for the entertainment of fans eager to see (and spend to view) their idols larger than life, especially those who live in the hinterlands, like me here in Honolulu, far from centers of music life. Yet, the film offers no new information or revelations for avid followers of the group.

I would say that the film was made by Big Hit Entertainment for BTS itself, to document a particular time when they are on fire and too caught up in the moment themselves to make sense of it in the present. In interviews toward the end of the movie, BTS members talk about their success with surprise and disbelief. They aren’t quite sure it’s real, though the audience knows that it was just the beginning of even greater accomplishments and record-breaking hits that came this year.

All the way through, there is a sense of gratitude and their desire to work harder and do their best for their fans, a particularly Korean mindset for most of the idols in a culture that values hard work and keeping promises. It is admirable and just one of many reasons why fans love their Korean idols so much. The degree to which they devote time, energy and demonstrate their respect and appreciation for fans is unprecedented in the west and does not go unnoticed by fans who give them their allegiance in return.

It’s a refreshing break from the “wham bam thank you ma’am” attitude of western artists in general, who are willing to take fans money and offer little of themselves in return. In contrast, Korean artists give their fans access to their lives through variety shows, music shows, TV series, social media, selfcams and livestreams. All this constancy gives fans a sense of a mutual relationship—if not ownership—of the band and its individual members, and all the loyalty such a relationship commands on behalf of fans.

The sacrifice of their personal lives is immense for the members and the film conveys a little sense of the loneliness and isolation of the road and being an idol. At one point, Big Hit Entertainment founder and CEO Bang Shihyuk, who formed BTS, tells them that one thing is missing from the group, which is the happiness of individual members. He tells them they should find their happiness.

That was eye-opening to those who usually see the boys clowning around on stage, and provided evidence that the image of carefree, easy-going performers is part of the act that makes fans happy. The part generally hidden is the aches and pains they feel, the longing for a personal life, love, friendships and fulfillment of personal goals and dreams outside of their bubble of a world.

The film glosses over the most painful parts of what started as a YouTube Red series about the tour, such as the extent of Jungkook’s exhaustion and collapse in Chile and V’s (Kim Taehyung) need to perform at 100 percent though he had been crying after a fight with Jin moments before hitting the stage.

Nadine Kam photo
Park Jimin basks in the moment during a rehearsal in “Burn the Stage.”

The film would have been all the more powerful, and probably won over more antis, if it had showed more of the real pain and struggle instead of focusing on the afterglow. It would be interesting to see a documentary every year that would shed more light on the industry and fate of idols who are generally seen as short-term commodities. BTS is somewhat of an exception because it is Big Hit’s inaugural, and most valuable asset.

Even so, Taehyung alludes to the brief longevity of K-pop phenomenons during his interview segment, when he notes that BTS is entering it’s sixth year as an idol, a time when he’s been told that people start burning out and their popularity begins to wane. There are a few bands survive more than five years.

Like Big Bang, Girls Generation and SHINee before them, BTS seems to be among the exceptions. But one thing the film gets across in poetic style is that the band has survived the desert and crossing of oceans to be where they are, bridging the chasm between Western and Korean culture. And although they cannot see, nor imagine the end of the road, they are willing to endure the struggle and go as far as their legs and voices will take them.