Three stars out of four.
Notwithstanding the distracting use of a preposition at the end of its title, the documentary “Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of” mostly stays on target as both an engaging and entertaining look at the boy band’s attempted resurgence.
Now, I was never much of a Backstreet Boys girl (although “I Want It That Way” remains a completely solid pop song, and don’t even try to deny it). I was always more into ‘N Sync — although, truthfully, I’m a little too old to be having such critical, analytical thoughts about either of these groups. It’s borderline-creepy. But BSB mattered, for better or for worse, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, selling 130 million records worldwide and emerging as the top-selling boy band in music history.
Here, they reconvene to celebrate their 20th anniversary with a new album and tour. (Despite some honest bursts of emotion, promotion is clearly the primary purpose here.) But first, they must reconnect, especially since the departure of elder statesman Kevin Richardson several years earlier turned the group into a foursome.
Director Stephen Kijak follows all five members — Richardson, Brian Littrell, A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough and Nick Carter — as they visit each others’ hometowns, recall their childhood aspirations, stop by to thank old teachers who believed in them and occasionally burst into tears. (Fun fact: Three out of five Backstreet Boys break down at some point during the course of the movie.) Carter’s memories of his volatile upbringing in a rough section of Ruskin, Florida, are especially poignant.
Kijak intersperses archival footage of the group’s admittedly manufactured beginnings between present-day recollections from the guys about their backstage shenanigans — the kind of stuff they couldn’t divulge when they were trying to maintain a squeaky-clean image. (Another fun fact: Richardson learned just enough German while touring through Europe to ask for a blow job.) Much of the involvement of Orlando impresario Lou Pearlman in forming and ultimately defrauding the group members gets glossed over, and there isn’t even a mention of the sexual allegations that have been leveled against him. But it’s an eerie sight when the singers sneak in and wander around Pearlman’s stripped, abandoned mansion while he serves a 25-year prison sentence for conducting one of the largest Ponzi schemes in American history.
Since then, they’ve lived their lives, formed families, made mistakes and tried to remain relevant through the fickle cycles of fame. Their candor is refreshing. McLean, the resident bad boy, frankly discusses his battles with alcohol and drug addiction. (In 2001, the other four members of the group famously announced he was entering rehab on a very special episode of MTV’s “TRL.”) Littrell worries that his weakening voice won’t hold up for the tour. Dorough gets a little pissy about the fact that he felt marginalized all those years and demands more time in the spotlight.
But the most explosive moment comes when Littrell and Carter engage in a profanity-laced fight in a conference room before their bandmates and a bunch of record executives. While the spat seems to come out of nowhere — truly, there’s no tension that leads up to it or any indication of a rift between the two — it provides a startling contrast with the camaraderie that permeates the rest of the film.
And yet, there’s never any doubt that the five will form a cohesive whole once more, and that they’ll do it their way by writing their own songs, playing their own instruments and finding their own harmonies. (They also bust out some of their old choreography, which looks a little creaky on guys who are hovering around 40.)
“Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of” is the title of a song on their new album, but you also get a sense that they feel liberated in finally showing the world what they’re made of through this film. McLean poses the question early on: “What do you do when you’re a full-grown man in a boy band?” The documentary provides an answer which is imperfect — yet joyous — in its humanity.