What is it like, to be in a boy band for 20(some) years? ‘It’s manufactured, like Pinocchio, but even he turned into a real boy’ – we hear Nick Carter say in Show ‘m what your made of, the documentary that takes us along on a trip that shows how the Backstreet Boys turned into real boys (or men) – If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read further!
In the opening scene of the documentary we see the Backstreet Boys, who are now in their mid- to late thirties, hiking through a forest. They have fun, laugh, help each other out, and make sure no one is left behind. The story of five boys who grew up together, who had their share of fun and drama together is what follows. The documentary – filmed by request of the band members themselves – is not chronological, but roughly stated the movie covers their twenty years of being active in the industry; from their rise to fame to the kick-off of the anniversary tour in 2013.
“We had to be worked on”
in the first ten minutes we see the Boys’ abilities; we see Nick strumming his guitar, AJ reenacting a scene from Drive and we see the five of them sing, a cappella – obviously. The narrative that follows illustrates the ethos of how working hard pays off, except with Lou Pearlman as your manager. Howie brags about how the paycheck for ‘being’ a Backstreet Boy was 75 dollars (a week) – which they all believed to be a massive amount (and “better than being a Mousketeer” according to Nick) of money for doing the things they loved most: dancing and singing. But, as AJ clarifies “We had to be worked on” – that Backstreet Boys ‘blend’ is how Nick defines it; the harmony of their voices. And that is how the BSB spent their first years rehearsing and singing under the supervision of entrepreneur Lou Pearlman, who created the group because he wanted his own version of Boyz II Men and New Kids on the Bock. Their successes formed the inspiration for the entrepreneur to create the boy band (who according to AJ are “a vocal harmony group”!). Kevin, 21 years old at the time, became the oldest member of the group, Nick, with his 12 years of age, the youngest. “It was like having four younger brothers”, Kevin remembers. Pearlman became a father-like figure for many of the boys during the early BSB-years, a memory that hits extra hard when we hear more about the losses Pearlman caused the boys (he considered himself the 6th BSB-member and hence took all their money) – and when we hear about Kevin’s backstory in which he tells the emotional story of how he lost his dad at a young age.
These backstories are in the documentary for all five boys/men – we learn more about Howie’s (difficult) road from being the lead of the band to taking up a more background position; we learn more about what is wrong with Brian’s voice (a story that has left fans speculating for years) and see an emotional rendezvous with his singing teacher; we see AJ return to his elementary school, as does Nick – who breaks down in tears when his old teachers show him a DVD of a play that he was in, because being on stage was “a way to get away from all the shit I was going through” (a story that is not unfamiliar to his fans).
But back to Pearlman, who let the boys out of the hangars they rehearsed in to perform at high schools. Kevin summarizes this early BSB-period as a “continuous summer camp”, but then in 1995 the guys finally got a record deal. “And then it fucking happened” recalls AJ.
From zero to breaking all records
From there on we actually all know the story; the Boys went to Sweden to record ‘We’ve got it goin’ on’ with the producers who recorded the Ace of Base album at the time. In Europe their songs immediately topped the charts – their sound fitting the poppy sounds and popularity of boy band(s) Take That (and Boyzone). So in this wake of the European boy bands, the Backstreet Boys could rise along to the number 1 position in the charts. Back at home in the States the charts were topped by Nirvana and Snoop Dog, as AJ mentions “There was no room for boys like us” – so in Europe they were branded as the ‘Americans’ with their basketball jackets and jerseys. And then the craze started, as Kevin reminisces, “We hit that stage and they went nuts”, AJ affirms; “You could not go out by yourself – it was chaos”. 14 million records were sold – we see footage of fans climbing on their tour bus, screaming and miles and miles of ladies just waiting to catch a glimpse of the guys. Via Canada the guys’ music reached the US – in 1997, their first album ‘Backstreet Boys’ was never even released in the US. Howie has a striking explanation for their popularity there, “America needed something more uplifting. We just came out of the Gulf War”.
‘Quit Playing Games with my Heart’ was the song that brought them fame in the US. “We looked like a bunch of beefcakes – but it worked out”, laughs Kevin. But soon Pearlman had created their ‘competition’ – we see a snippet of *N SYNC, who apparently as AJ reveals in the documentary were the new lovechildren of Pearlman. He had told the band that, so repeats AJ, “we’re molding them in your image”. That’s also the time when the Boys seem to realize that money-wise something is off. As Kevin shares his view on the story, “Our bank accounts didn’t make sense – we had been touring non-stop in 1998”. A feeling shared by Brian, who says “We were being taken advantage of. Nobody was taking care of us”.Their manager, who not got arrested until 2007, ripped them. Yet, the boys wouldn’t consider themselves naïve, so they say. They just didn’t realize how much of a voice they could have in this (which I find a bit of a problematic narrative!). Nevertheless, that period around the year 2000 was a glorious momentum for the boys: “We were gods in a twisted way” they recall. Their album Millenium broke all records. “We should’ve stepped back and recharged”, concludes AJ, “But we were a big stack of cash that they were going to have a piece of”. Nick similarly mentions “I can’t really comprehend it: to this day” – and that’s not just about the tours but also about he could ‘get everyone he wanted as a 17-year old’. Kevin had a more sober outlook, “it was 9 years straight of touring, we were done”.
Yet, the Backstreet Boys weren’t done: although they might have disappeared from the charts and from MTV’s and radio’s radar (if that happens you’re done according to AJ), they fought Pearlman; they worked on solo projects; Kevin left the band for a while (which never felt good to the other guys) and they still toured and wrote new songs: Hard work pays off, that is what the documentary want us to believe. It continues with a ‘meeting’ – like all of us in office jobs have regularly – and rehearsals about the new tour. We hear frustrations about having to work weekends in order to get the dance routines perfect, the see frustrations played out, we see flaws (Kevin not having been on stage for seven years – AJ who had two knee surgeries – Brian who had an open-heart surgery), and we see sweat and arguments. We see Nick and Brian banter, from understanding to harsh insults about Brian’s voice condition. But, Kevin – in his role as the oldest of the band – tries to calm the boys down and reminds them that they need to make it work before the 20th anniversary tour. And then we’re taken along to the preparations that went on backstage for that tour.
Fighting against the facade
“20 years is a long fucking time for anybody” we hear AJ say; while we see images from the tour, from the shows they did across the world. We don’t really see what happens during their time on tour; just a few songs are implemented in the documentary. Maybe that will follow? But what we don’t see at all – in the movie at large – is the lives the boys build up outside their Backstreet Boys career: There’s a fleeting moment of AJ daughter, and a snapshot of Brian’s wife (who went along on tour), but we don’t see families, kids or wives being filmed. Aren’t they proud daddies now? Proud husbands? A lot of their fans have kids now, and are married, so why not bring those themes up in the movie? Would it diminish their status as ‘gods’ or sex symbols? We also don’t really get to see the dirt: Pearlman is obviously the bad guy, but all in all we don’t see any other ‘dirt’ (unlike the Big Reunion). And if we do get to see it, it is very constructed and well edited – Howie for instance, almost ‘apologies’ or explains AJ’s addiction, as Howie says “He wanted to be so rock ‘n roll: He didn’t realize he was in a boy band”. But that ‘fighting against the façade’ as they call it, is not elaborated upon. The guys always come of very likeable – even the moment when Kevin tells he was about to kick AJ’s door for not showing up to a gig because he was a coke coma (although the fight between Nick and Brian is a bit scary).
Twenty years of Backstreet Boys-ship shows us a hard working band that has won the battle over their evil(s) (manager) and is still around today – ‘in a world like this’ where so much has changed, especially the industry they were ‘manufactured’ for. That manufacturing is battled heavily in the movie: There are ample shots where we see one of the guys on guitar, on drums, singing together; the Backstreet have turned into these ‘real boys’ over the years. They want to show you they are made of ‘real material’ by now. And they will do this together, as seen in the last scenes of the film; we’re back at that hill from the opening scene as we hear AJ say “That’s as far as I’m gonna go”, up the hill – together and with help from the other boys.
To give an impression of the break-away from manufacturing:
* images used are screenshots from the trailer *