Let’s leap back to 1994. Grunge and gangsta rap dominated MTV — music that claimed to be gritty and honest. Yet that year in Orlando, as far away from Seattle as it gets, a Ponzi-scheme scam artist named Lou Pearlman selected five lads aged 14 to 21 to form the Backstreet Boys. Their first gigs were in public-school gymnasiums, to which they pulled up in a Winnebago. By the end of the decade, the Backstreet Boys would upend the Billboard charts and usher in a new millennium of scrubbed pop. And by the time they had sold 130 million albums, they would no longer be boys but men, at once aware that their choreographed dance routines were totally uncool to their drinking-age peers, yet justifiably defensive of the long, hard years of work they had invested in their success.
Critics called them fake. But the effort was real. And hey, even Tupac had more experience ballet-dancing than capping fools.
“In the beginning, it was manufactured, no doubt about it,” admits Nick Carter, the blue-eyed baby of the group. “But it’s like Pinocchio. He was manufactured, and he turned into a real boy.” Today, the Boys have stubble, wives, children, and a desire to prove themselves to the public as real musicians. Which it turns out they were all along. Goofing off with instruments they rarely got to use onstage, the Boys can truly play and sing. It’s a sign of the Auto-Tuned times that we’re surprised by their skills. And that surprise is why Stephen Kijak’s unexpectedly endearing documentary, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of, exists.
Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of is for fans, haterz, and agnostics — for people (myself included) who couldn’t name all five guys without accidentally throwing in a member of rival group *NSync, and devotees who will thrill to tour the childhood homes of Carter (the heartthrob), Brian Littrell (the standout singer), Howie Dorough (whose title Brian usurped), A.J. McLean (the tough dude), and Kevin Scott Richardson (the over-it elder statesman). Kijak, who previously directed docs on the Rolling Stones and cult icon Scott Walker, has a clear-eyed, unswoony perspective on the best-selling boy band in history. He cuts between their slow-going, hip-swiveling rise to fame, their overnight disappearance, and the present, when, twenty years after Pearlman ordered them through endless drills, they’re reconnecting to record a new album and see if their middle-aged knees can handle another worldwide tour.
Kijak likes the Boys. It’s impossible not to. They’re the first to admit that liking them was kinda uncool. The documentary doesn’t coddle their egos. Instead, it steps back and lets them justify their career. The Boys are at once lightly self-mocking and unapologetic — and, because the now-married men have aged out of PG fandom, they can finally dish about all the groupies they scored, especially during the early years bussing across Europe, where chipper dance grooves never went out of fashion. Jokes Richardson, he learned the German for “Will you give me a blowjob?”
Their 1996 debut album went triple platinum abroad, but never charted in America. Back home, their friends didn’t get that they were selling out stadiums in Sweden. But Americans would understand when the second disc, Backstreet’s Back, became the tenth best selling album of the Nineties. Not that the Backstreet Boys saw much of that cash. Pearlman had siphoned most of it off the top, and they had to pay their Svengali $27 million to buy back their freedom. Even then, they still couldn’t escape him: Pearlman had used their money to launch *NSync, their main competition, forcing them to compete with the clones they’d unwittingly funded.
Fifteen years later, Pearlman’s betrayals still sting. He’d been the surrogate father — or really, more like a sleazy uncle — who’d let them party and watch porn at his 15,000-square-foot mansion, which he’d bought in part with $300 million from fraudulent investments. (Teenagers that they were, what most impressed the Boys was that Pearlman had a working Coke machine with old-school glass bottles.) Other aspiring male starlets have accused Pearlman of pressuring them to perform sexual favors. None of the Boys cop to enduring that. Still, they seem haunted by their half-decade with him. Today, with Lou in prison until 2029, Kijak follows them as they break in to his old estate and wander through the halls, shaking off the ghosts.
Like Pearlman, they once owned Orlando, renting out the local alleys for strip bowling and snorting cocaine like they could party away their teenybopper shame. The good times came at a price: When Littrell underwent open-heart surgery in 1998, the Backstreet Boys’ management team wouldn’t delay their world tour. Shrugs Littrell, “We were a big stack of cash that they were going to have a piece of.”
Post-Lou, the Backstreet Boys were forced to find their own voice. Post-fame, they’re now finding it again. But Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of convincingly argues that these boy-men have something to say about the fickleness of fate — something they knew more about as young men than any of the cynics who dismissed them for dancing in unison. The hardest part will be convincing people to listen.