The Public and Private Lives of BTS Blur on Tour

From Break the Silence (2020), dir. Park Jun-soo (all images courtesy Trafalgar Releasing)

There’s a clip I love from a 2018 BTS concert in Brazil. RM, the band’s leader, repeats, “I wish I could love myself,” misty-eyed and sweat-stained; the line comprises the outro of “Reflection,” a track off their gorgeous 2016 LP Wings. ARMY, BTS’s massive global fanbase volleys, “We love you!” until he changes his tune. “Yes, I do love myself,” he says, though those are not the lyrics. At a New York concert in 2019, he told ARMY: “It’d be good if there was a better word than ‘love,’ but truly, I love you. Please know that.”

As they share both unaffected self-criticism and gratitude, the private selves of BTS — who are by every quantifiable measure the most popular band in the world, transcending even the Western music industry’s structurally racist paradigms — feel indistinguishable from their public personas. They are celebrities surprised by their own celebrity, occupying a slippery space between untouchable idols and fleshly humans subject to self-doubt. They speak of this dichotomy in interviews and on their albums. The conundrum is also a focus of Break the Silence, a new documentary about the band directed by Park Jun-soo.

Break the Silence fills a void left by a pandemic-postponed global tour. In the interim, BTS released their first English-language single, “Dynamite,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 (the first song by a Korean band to do so), conducting the accompanying press junket from home. When I saw Break the Silence last week, the theater wasn’t packed (South Florida is still a COVID hotspot), but it teemed with thirst. The brief visibility of Jungkook’s naked shoulder prompted shrieks.

From Break the Silence

The film follows the band during their 2018-2019 Love Yourself: Speak Yourself world tour, tracking both their historic stadium shows and their post-performance astonishment. “I don’t see myself as someone worthy of having so much influence,” RM reflects over a scene of the band storming a stage. Concert footage occupies much of the runtime, blurring together in a sea of ARMY Bombs. When the members introduce themselves, they demarcate birth and stage names: Kim Namjoon (RM), Kim Seokjin (Jin), Min Yoongi (Suga), Jung Hoseok (J-Hope), Park Jimin (Jimin), Kim Taehyung (V), and Jeon Jungkook (Jungkook). At one dinner, they suggest they say a few more lines for the camera “before we get too drunk.” I’d forgotten they weren’t perpetually on camera.

Break the Silence is one of four documentaries on the band, three of which are named with the “BTS” acronym. All are part of their endless content machine that’s a lifeline to ARMY and 90% of my YouTube consumption. My adoration for BTS is cumulative; the more of them I see, the more of them I love. That they remain visibly grateful for (and a touch incredulous about) their cultural significance only deepens my affection. Fans will describe them as providing a welcome boost of tenderness and inspiration; while BTS’s transformation of the music industry is unequivocal, the effect on ARMY’s collective heart is a deeper, perhaps more portentous marvel (ARMY matched the band’s recent million-dollar donation to Black Lives Matter). 

In one of several solo moments devoted to each member, Jin recalls RM’s suggestion that their depression, if evident, will render ARMY depressed as well: “I try to hide my darker side … I tend to separate Jin and Kim Seokjin.” Such an admission has the opposite effect; now we know Jin gets depressed too, and it’s a relief. Of becoming an icon, Jungkook explains that while “a new persona was created” when they debuted in 2013, “it doesn’t seem necessary to separate the two.” He adds: “[As far as] my own worth, there isn’t much.”

From Break the Silence

Lest their humility seem factitious, consider that BTS’s fame was unexpected, even in Korea. They’ve always been open about the process of slowly accepting their hard-earned success (consequently boosting their popularity). Midway through the film, J-Hope says their original intention was never stardom, while Jimin admits: “I’ve been trying to show myself as honestly as I can … I’ve been trying to acknowledge myself more than before.” Even in form — quickening concert shots, then sudden stillness — Break the Silence attempts to illuminate the band’s nuanced balancing act, and in turn provide ARMY with more BTS. When the credits rolled, I felt sated and also hoped, in earnest, that they’d left a little of themselves to themselves.

My favorite scene features RM, who has a habit of sensitively querying common aphorisms. He’s visiting a woodshop somewhere verdant, idyllic, unnamed. “People often say that being in pain is inevitable for artists, but I don’t think that’s always the case,” he says. “I think I was able to keep going without creating some kind of public incident, all because I didn’t go mad. When I go to the museum, or ride my bike … it’s part of the fight to keep myself from going insane.” Ask why my feelings for BTS resemble something like love — I’d say the same.

Break the Silence is currently playing in select theaters.

Break the Silence, the new concert film about the incredibly popular K-pop band, demonstrates the vulnerability that makes them so beloved by fans.Read MoreFilm, BTS, concert films, Documentary, Korean Pop, South KoreaHyperallergicRead More

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