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However the definition might be parsed, the concept of the Boy Band is nothing new: A group of young, good looking fellows, primped to perfection and trained within an inch of their lives to sing and dance their way into the hearts of an unsuspecting female public has been revived over and over in various forms since the dawn of the recording industry.  As shown in the documentary, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of, in a world muddling through the permanently overcast ugliness of the late 80s/early 90s grunge years, full of grubbiness, drug abuse and death; from the sunny shores of Florida came a quintet of young men so perfectly prefabricated and squeaky clean, they seemed to wash away the dirt of an entire era with one waterlogged video clip.  Crooning romantic lyrics over bubblegum perfect pop and sliding into smooth moves clad in candy-coloured silk pajamas under a torrent of rain; what was many Americans’ first iconic vision of the Backstreet Boys in their clip for “Quit Playing Games (with My Heart)” would launch them on a journey they are still on two decades later.

The Backstreet Boys were the biggest, plain and simple.  No one could touch the imprint they’d left on their generation in terms of albums sales and chart topping.  The template was tried, true and simple; five picturesque young fellows assembled by a wealthy Floridian, interested in the entertainment industry, who placed the pretty boys against a backdrop of can’t fail music producers.  There was the older, wiser, model-handsome leader, Kevin Richardson, elfin, powerhouse vocalist, Brian Littrell, sensitive, soulful, puppy dog, Howie Dorough, black sheep bad-boy, A.J. McLean, and the impish babyface, Nick Carter (all of 15 years old at the time of their first album).  From their overrunning cup of success flowed their closest rivals (and labelmates) *NSync, undisputed bubblegum goddess, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, 98 Degrees, Mandy Moore, O-Town, LFO, and dozens more further down on the Tiger Beat magazine food chain.

In celebration of their 20th anniversary, the group has produced this chronicle, retracing their history and present course and what they believe will be the ostensible future for Backstreet Boys, despite all the naysayers who might regard them as relics of a past best forgotten.

In the age of YouTube and Itunes, so much has changed since the Backstreet Boys’ heyday and one of the biggest alterations is not having a standard place to show music videos, which was at one time, the most important tool for introducing a group to the world.  MTV and VH1 ruled in that regard and were absolutely instrumental in the group’s success.  I mention the loss of those stations because without a doubt, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of would have been a perfect fit to play on one of those channels, as it has almost no reason either in its scope or narrative to play in any movie theatre or even as a video-on-demand offering.  What the filmmakers have presented is a documentary with so few surprises and eye-opening moments as to wonder why they even bothered?  I was left with far more questions than answers about the movie’s subjects. 

Having the group itself as producers might’ve been the worst possible choice in making this film.  It is obvious there are plenty of no-go zones and stories that were splashed all over newspapers and entertainment television at the time and might still beg clarification or comment are glossed over, directed elsewhere, or never addressed at all.  What’s odder still, is that often the group brings these issues up themselves:  After introducing *NSync into the conversation as a betrayal by their Svengali/crook manager, Lou Pearlman, how did they feel to watch the younger group steal their thunder? How did they feel about the battalion of copycat acts they inspired?  Why did Kevin Richardson leave the band? What were the discussions that brought him back? Why do the married members never talk about their families, or the effects of the reunion and tour on their home lives? How did they know they were over as a hitmaking entity?  What did they do in the years that they stopped making records? We’re given a little bit of Richardson’s reaction, but how did the other members respond when A.J. kept falling back into addiction?  They also ignore the fairly weighty gorilla in the room of not only manager/creator Pearlman’s financial misdeeds, but his sexual ones; glaring rumours about the older man’s predatory behaviour with his young protégées that were rampant for years and had included a complaint from one Backstreet Boy’s mother.  Even something as simple as why they have taken on this Herculean task of completing a world tour with very little prep time and many shows scheduled, when none of the members (except perhaps Howie Dorough) are at their physical peak isn’t explored.  Some very obvious questions that never get any answers or insight.  Instead, we are fed some incredibly cliché “homecoming” footage of each of the guys going to their old neighbourhoods, or old elementary schools and getting teary-eyed at some memory, or demonstrating how they remembered their old training routines.

It’s not that one needs to dig in the dirt to make a good documentary, but when the subject is the most successful boy band in history, with millions of girls thrown at their feet at such an early age and a very detailed history of strife, the extremely obvious lack of grit then becomes conspicuous and manipulative.  Almost as a bone to the audiences who will be lulled into a stupor by the pallidness of this telling, we are shown a few moments of interest; one occurs when the group gather in London to record a new album and we see - for a quick minute - that they can actually play instruments, sing and write.  Another intriguing scene takes place at a group meeting where Carter decides to take years of frustration out on Littrell, who is suffering from voice issues, and it practically comes to dozens, with each one hurling invective at the other:

Carter: “I’m not afraid of you anymore” “Are we going to talk about the fact that you don’t necessarily sound as good as you used to?  Are we going to talk about when we get into the studio and producers come to us and tell us they got problems because of your fucking voice?” 

Littrell:  “Yeah, cos I can’t do your job, anymore.”

Just when your ears perk up and you think you’re seeing something interesting, it’s over; never visited again and all that follows is hunky-dory, leaving one to wonder if the scene wasn’t manufactured to inject some much needed spark into what surely even the filmmakers must’ve seen were pretty dull proceedings.

I would have liked a bit more on their work with the Scandinavian hit-making factory, led by writer-producer, Max Martin, that was responsible for not only Backstreet Boys’ debut single, "We've Got It Goin' On," but megahits like “Quit Playing Games (with My Heart),” "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely"  and "I Want It That Way."  We get a little bit of insight on those days from Howie Dorough, who felt pushed aside by this new direction, and his talent and contribution discounted, but then it’s dropped.  To that end, I might have also liked to hear how bit by bit the guys did get self-penned tracks onto their albums, or perhaps to talk about their dissatisfaction - if there was any - with being regarded as talented Ken dolls, propped into position, or the image they had to uphold.  We aren’t even shown enough of how very talented the men are as vocalists: We catch quick glimpses that remind one why that music stuck with them, or, how epic Brian’s bit on that song was, or how A.J. really did bring the funk to that track, but then we’re back at this or that member’s old dance school watching Carter, the baby of the group, having trouble keeping up with the choreography of his own song, while young ballerinas who might have been conceived to "As Long as You Love Me" outdance him.

What is remarkable is seeing how not particularly well-preserved the members are.  Their current ages range from 35-43, but some of them come off considerably older; between physical ailments, lack of conditioning, and in some instances, a rather elderly-seeming dispassion.  From their look, it might seem their road was harder than many rock stars, but one couldn’t tell that for sure from this non-stick documentary.

Back to my longing for the days of VH1; I think the makers of the old Rock Doc series, Behind the Music would’ve come up with a much more interesting offering that pulled far fewer punches than this film.  Because there’s no clear sense of tribulation, there’s not even a feeling of triumph or completion by the film’s end.  One gets the impression this whole 20th anniversary tour was simply a thing to do because they’d reached 20 years in the business - longevity versus creativity.  Plenty of other far less successful groups have done same, but few have documented the shallowness of their reasoning as aptly as this. 

There was a lot of room for discussion and content in this story, but instead, as producers, it’s clear the Backstreet Boys opted for a puffier piece that feels more like a promotion for their tour or upcoming ventures than an effort to make anyone truly understand their struggle.  It’s a pity.  I definitely did not want it that way.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Jan 30th, 2015


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