Director: Jun-soo Park
Writer(s): Jungkyung Park, Yun Gyeong Jang
Runtime: 4 Hours/185 Minutes
Available on: Disney+ Hotstar
BTS knows the importance of owning their narrative, and in their decade long career, they have shown repeatedly that they will fight to keep control of it. This is rare in an industry that frequently fails to protect the rights of its artists.
In July 2023, the company behind the group released Beyond the Story: 10 Year Record of BTS, an official biography co-authored by BTS and Kang Myeongseok. Now, in January 2024, they released BTS Monuments: Beyond the Star – an eight part docu-series in collaboration with Walt Disney Studios that does a fantastic job of taking fans behind the scenes, and also reminding them with deep emotional intensity, just how difficult the journey has been for the seven young men.
It’s fascinating, and also fitting, that both came from Hybe Media Studio. The Bangtan Boys get to tell their own story in their own voice.
From the moment BTS came into existence, long before their debut, every minute of their journey was meticulously archived. Having cameras follow you around was a perfectly normal part of a Kpop group’s existence in 2013, but with BTS, that documentation gained a colour and humongous prominence — each member learned to approach their growing audience as individuals, setting off on a grand, intimidating journey.
Long before BigHit began dropping ‘Bangtan Bombs’ on Twitter and YouTube — short clips of their lives as trainees, and later as artists on their daily grind — fans connected with them through the tiny radio shows they hosted, the social channels they ran personally and the livestreams where the members processed every triumph and defeat in public. Even without the personal cameramen following their every waking moment, the young members were experiencing a level of social exposure from the very beginning that was unthinkable for the time.
Which is what makes a documentary like Monuments so interesting. For long-term fans — who've followed the extensive coverage of their daily lives — the emotional confessions, the earnest conversations amongst the members caught on camera over the years, the documentary offers a succinct recap of the rigorous hard work, and constant march towards the next, higher peak. It is heartwarming to see the boys’ excitement at sweeping all the best new artist awards in their first year, as well as their thrill at performing at the Olympic Stadium with sold out tickets to the awards and accolades showered on them globally. But, you also get to watch self-doubt creep into their eyes as a new song doesn't chart as high as the one before. You know all of this if you are a fan, but it's a different experience watching it all come together like this, with their grown-up versions processing the past, ruminating, and divulging fondly what were their thoughts and feelings at the time.
It feels right that this story, told from the beginning, and brought up to the present, is entirely from their perspective. For newer fans, this documentary may well be the first time they grasp the full scope of the Goliathan battle these young men had to fight to reach the heights they now reside in. Unsurprisingly, Hybe made the move to platform and edit this series in a way that focuses the heart of the story — the interiority of the seven young men. Their emotions, freely expressed to their fandom over the years, has been a grounding element of their popularity. ARMY connects with the group deeply when they understand the thoughts behind the music they write, the performances they craft and the live streams they sleep through.
There are a lot of other resources — more than a dozen documentaries released by BigHit over the years — as well as interviews, and thousands of vlog style videos, covering parts of this journey in detail that you can easily look up if this story has a hold on you. There is even an exceptional docu-series, Rise of Bangtan, that came out a year ago on YouTube, whose creation is credited to ARMY, the fans who have promoted, protected and adored the group for a decade. The unnamed fans behind the series do the massive job of collecting more than ten years of footage from vlogs, live streams, interviews and stage performances to create a tight and easy-to-follow story of the effort, and integrity of these young men.
But looking up all of that content is the happy task of a new fan with a lot of time on their hands. I’ve been that fan and despite not actually having all that much time, I managed to spend a couple of years diving into the ocean of official and unofficial BTS content available on the internet. A much quicker way to understand and appreciate their journey is definitely a docu-series like this.
The series starts with focus on early 2020; when the group was preparing for their Map of the Soul world tour. It was an event that was unprecedented: For once, a Kpop group had a fan base that was wide enough that they could include parts of the African and Asian continents, both of which hardly any South Korean entertainment company had bothered with before. (Even India was on the list, and it’s been a long and arduous wait for us to get a proper Kpop concert here.)
It hit me while watching the first few episodes that the pace was dizzying. They covered the first five years of their career within just the first two episodes. Perhaps, they were worried about losing new fans if they loosened the pace, but this was one of the few things that could have been reconsidered. For anyone unfamiliar with the timeline of these events, the non-chronological approach, sparse use of dates and breakneck speed of the story might make it harder to enjoy the series. Later in the series, the pace does slacken, as the story becomes more introspective. They shift the focus from hardships of a risky debut, to the joys and frustrations of being on the top and not knowing what they should be doing next.
Their coverage of what happened with their Map of the Soul concert is particularly delightful. This was an important turning point for them because they couldn’t hold a live show with an audience for two years during the pandemic, and that had a lasting effect on their perception of themselves as artists who were meant to perform on stage.
However, it all came to naught as the lockdown compromised this global plan. In those early moments of the series, Min Yoongi (Suga) talked about how the uncertainty in the news drove shards of fear into their hearts. They were worried that they might never be able to hold a concert again. “Was there any point in releasing music any more?” he wondered, aloud. An episode later, BTS talked about why concerts are so important to them. Jung Hoseok (J-Hope) said that he thinks he became an artist just to be able to do concerts. We jump back to a montage starting with their very first concert — attended by 6000 people — and then glance through many others over the years, with each event growing in size and grandeur.
It’s something they have said a lot over the years - how much they love meeting the fans, and hearing the response to their music and performances, live. For the first seven years of their career, BTS barely had breathing room between concerts and world tours. They wanted to meet their fans, as much as ARMY wanted to meet them. So, the cancellation of their biggest tour to date was a massive blow. Later the series notes how they used this crisis to innovate, and hold a massive globally streamed concert where they performed for an audience of millions in a huge, empty theatre surrounded by screens. It was enthusiastically appreciated by the fandom, but that digital concert couldn’t feed their artistic needs to connect with their fans the way a live event would have facilitated.
When they finally held an in person concert in November, 2021, the response was tremendous. As was the clear joy on their faces standing on a stage surrounded by their fans once again.
While the documentary covers the early struggles of the group, they don’t go into much detail about why BTS had it so much harder than other promising groups around them. This felt like a deliberate choice, perhaps, because one can presume the group didn’t want to expose the biases in South Korean media to a global audience, and also, due to their intention to focus on their own feelings during that time, rather than to allow the attention to shift to the industry that didn’t support them.
This creates an odd situation where on the one hand, their effort to centre the men as artists who are the heroes of the story is appreciable, but on the other hand, it feels like the series fails to provide wider context for a lot of events which is important in any documentary. For instance, explaining how the South Korean music industry at the time was dominated by three big entertainment companies would have helped us understand why BTS - from the tiny struggling start-up, BigHit - had to fight so hard to make their mark despite being quite popular from the very beginning. If fans want to understand these struggles, and the nuances of their decisions over the years in more detail, they would either have to plumb the deep ocean of other BTS content, or wait for a documentary with a perspective that uses a wider lens and shows us what navigating the music industry was actually like.
The final leg of the series ends on the note of a bittersweet goodbye. They had spent 10 years together, eight of them living in the same space. I have felt pride, and nostalgia, watching them rediscover their individuality in the last two years — they found their own voices, they discovered they had distinct ideas about a lot of things, from how to decorate their apartment to who they wanted to collaborate with. With all of the running they had done till now, it was with a lighter heart that they could let themselves enjoy discovering who they were on their own.
But as Kim Seok-jin (Jin) puts it, you don’t have to be together to be a family. As the credits roll, and we are left with the knowledge that they would have to wait another two years to reunite, it’s still a warm feeling because you never doubt that this group of members, friends and brothers would definitely perform together again some day.