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There’s a compelling documentary to be made about the best-selling boy band of all time, but Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of isn’t it. Director Stephen Kijak, who previously explored far more compelling musical territory with Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, has delivered a behind-the-scenes portrait that should please the band’s diehard fans, but offers little of substance to the uninitiated. “What do you do when you’re a full-grown man in a boy band?” one of the members asks, but that provocative question is never satisfactorily answered.
Concentrating on the group’s reunion after the return of Kevin Richardson and their preparations for their 2013 20th anniversary tour—yes, time does fly by—the film offers the sort of boilerplate personal revelations designed to illustrate that the members are nice guys at heart. We’ve privy to sentimental journeys to childhood homes, colorful anecdotes about teenage rambunctiousness, reunions with former schoolteachers, etc.
Along the way the group’s members recount their personal history, starting with being recruited by shady impresario Lou Pearlman, currently serving a prison sentence for his various financial malfeasances, including a giant Ponzi scheme. One of the film’s most effective and haunting segments features the group touring their former manager’s once palatial home, now stripped bare by the IRS.
The group was not an overnight success, honing their act by performing in high school and middle schools around the country. They eventually found success first in Europe and then Canada, finally achieving superstardom in the U.S. with the release of their self-titled 1997 debut album, featuring such hit singles as “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).” Clips are included of the accompanying video, amusingly featuring the singers in full beefcake mode. Their 1999 release Millennium was a true phenomenon, ultimately selling some 24 million copies worldwide.
There were, of course, personal travails along the way. Brian Littrell actually put off much-needed open-heart surgery in order to go on tour, while A.J. McLean lapsed into serious drug and alcohol addiction.
These and other emotional issues, such as Pearlman’s actually creating their own competition in the form of ‘N Sync, are touched on briefly. But they’re quickly skirted over in favor of promoting the group’s resurrection, including footage from a Toronto concert performed before hordes of screaming female fans reliving their youth.
“We had some great pop songs and we sang the shit out of them,” proclaims Richardson early in the proceedings. That much is certainly true, but this disappointingly pro forma documentary doesn’t really have that much more to say.
Production: Pulse Films
Director: Stephen Kijak
Producer: Mia Bays
Executive producers: Sam Sniderman, Jeff Kwatinetz, Jennifer Sousa
Director of photography: James Henry
Editors: Ben Stark, Cinzia Baldessari
No rating, 105 min.
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival