By LYNN BARKER
Front Row Features Film Critic
Boyz II Men. NSync. New Direction. All are among the success stories of boy bands. Record producers, rich entrepreneurs looking to make big bucks or indulging in a Godhead fantasy manufactured many of these groups.
Backstreet Boys, one of the most successful of these bands, is the subject of a fascinating new documentary. “Backstreet Boys—Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of,” directed by Stephen Kijak, helmer of the well-received docs “Scott Walker: 30th Century Man” and “Cinemania,” is among the most real, personal and heartfelt I’ve seen on the subject.
Between 1997 and 2001, Backstreet Boys ruled the pop scene with hits like “Rock Your Body” and “I Want It That Way.” Their fans were and still are legion. In the summer of 1992, producer Lou Pearlman advertised in an Orlando, Florida newspaper for male singers for a New Kids On the Block-style group. Headed for careers as Mouseketeers, Disney World costume characters or maybe basketball stars, A.J. McLean and Tony Donetti (a.k.a. Howie Dorough) were the first to successfully audition. At 12, Nick Carter wasn’t quite a teenager yet. Kevin Richardson and his cousin Brian Littrell joined in 1993.
Kijak’s film begins in present day with the group members on a friendly hike in the woods. It’s soon obvious that although the guys still look great, they are coping with bad knees and other signs of early middle age. In flashbacks, we learn how Pearlman, a rich entrepreneur, manufactured the band. The talented youngsters rose above the boy band stigma by being able to sing live in perfect harmony.
Through vintage footage, viewers go with them on their grueling tour schedule at a breakneck pace from town to town with almost no rest. We learn of Pearlman’s betrayal as he kept a huge chunk of their earnings and eventually was arrested for running an investment scheme. Pearlman adding NSync to his roster as the boys’ main rivals further distanced them from their creator.
Through footage of early performances on the high school circuit and practice sessions in bathrooms (great acoustics), signing with Jive Records and a massively successful European tour, we can see how harmonies and bonding were achieved. By 1997, Backstreet Boys’ huge success overseas and in Canada finally brought them home to the U.S., where they gained a massive fan base.
In present day (the 2013 pre-20th Anniversary Tour), Brian’s once clear voice is faltering and he fights his fears and argues with his band mates, especially with Nick, about whether he can still carry the lead. Woven throughout are trips to each band member’s hometown as they visit inspiring teachers and those who believed in them. Also exposed are a few dysfunctional family memories that caused deep emotional wounds. The boys aren’t afraid to cry, whether sympathizing with a fellow band member’s emotional turmoil or their own.
For the 2013 reunion tour, the guys put up their own money and vow to do it for fun while they and they alone control their choice of songs. We see clips from the apparently successful tour with most of the group turmoil resolved and Brian’s voice returning in full force.
“Backstreet Boys –Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of” is one of the most open, honest and personal of the boy band or boy sensation (Justin Bieber) documentaries I’ve seen. For original fans of the group, this is a must-see. For those, like me, who just remember a lot of their music, it is involving, entertaining and very real. The documentary follows the guys through highs and lows and old, long-stifled grudges emerge into near volatile arguments that are healed as they prepare for their comeback tour. Of course, you also get plenty of their hit tunes and a few new sounds along the way.