'The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story': TV Review | SXSW 2019

If Fyre Festival has whet your appetite for endless fraud documentaries.
4/3/2019

YouTube's new documentary focuses on Backstreet Boys and NSYNC manager/founder Lou Pearlman, painting a dark portrait of the Ponzi fraudster.

Aaron Kunkel's new documentary The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story is a film with its finger on the biggest non-fiction trends of early 2019.

Occupying a middle ground between the mania for fraud-driven programming that fueled two Fyre Festival documentaries and multiple explorations of Elizabeth Holmes' Theranos fiasco and the darker, nostalgia-fueled nightmares of Leaving Neverland or Surviving R. Kelly, The Boy Band Con is designed to make you shift between found memories, incredulous shock and outright disgust. The documentary, premiering this week at SXSW and on April 3 on YouTube Premium, isn't fully equipped to capture all of the nuances of its tonal shifts, but it's an entertaining enough dive beneath the surface of a pop culture phenomenon and the strange man who launched it.

Pearlman was, of course, the founder and manager of a boy-band empire that included Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. He also was the orchestrator of an epic Ponzi scheme that bilked hundreds of millions of dollars from investors and landed him in prison.

But that's all literal Wikipedia stuff. Who was Lou Pearlman beyond and behind the headlines? That's what The Boy Band Con and most of its subjects are struggling with.

Thanks in part to the presence of Lance Bass as one of its producers, The Boy Band Con has assembled a reasonable assortment of artists whose lives Pearlman shaped, influenced, elevated and harmed. Joining Bass in representing NSYNC are Chris Kirkpatrick, J.C. Chasez and, for whatever reason, Justin Timberlake's mom. Backstreet Boy attendance is a little bit sparser, with only A.J. McClean showing up. Contributing insight from deeper in Pearlman's catalog are Ashley Parker Angel of O-Town, David Perez of C-Note, Tim Christofore and Nikki DeLoach of Innosense. Aaron Carter is also interviewed, and he's rather terrifyingly intense.

The most purely amusing segment of the documentary is its breakdown of the early days of Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, how Pearlman generated a rivalry between the bands, how he built them up to stardom and both groups came to realize that he had signed them to absurdly weighted contracts scamming them out of millions. The doc isn't without at least some admiration for the magnitude of what he put together. So was Pearlman a father figure to these guys? A svengali? A manipulator and crook? For the most part, the NSYNC and Backstreet guys aren't sure exactly where they land, as they go through memories that are sometimes warm, sometimes painful, sometimes colorfully illuminating and sometimes frustratingly blurry. It's worth noting how conspicuous some of the absences are, not just Timberlake and Joey Fatone from NSYNC, but Brian Littrell, the ringleader of Backstreet Boys' lawsuit against Pearlman.

One of my favorite things about The Boy Band Con is how it's constructed around this unresolved image of who Pearlman was at the peak of his power before going back, almost 40 minutes into the doc, to explore his upbringing in Queens. Kunkel talks to several people who are described in onscreen chyrons as Pearlman's childhood friends who then proceed to tear him to shreds, all building up to Pearlman's first forays in the aviation industry including, in one of the greatest real-life-as-metaphor moments ever, a blimp that crashed on its maiden voyage in an act of pure insurance fraud. As Kunkel structures the doc, it's like "Here's this guy who nobody completely understands, now let's go back in time and … nobody understood him then, either." I prefer that to cheap and specious psychoanalyzing.

I wish Kunkel had shown similar restraint in a brief window of speculation in which an assortment of wild and horrible accusations are thrown in Pearlman's direction, only to have everybody agree that they don't really know anything and therefore shouldn't be speculating. Like it's one thing to call a guy who was convicted of tax fraud a tax cheat, but leveling charges of pedophilia and molestation with nobody willing to go on the record is mighty shady. The closest the doc comes is Parker Angel repeating a story that the late Rich Cronin of LFO told Howard Stern, but none of the other guys will speak to anything worse than a creepy back rub. DeLoach mentions that Pearlman had cameras around the house, including focused on his tanning bed and that he showed, or offered to show, the guys footage of the girls tanning, but Kunkel can't do much with that other than a general acknowledgment of grossness. I truly wonder if anybody might have gone on the record with more details now as more victim narratives are being listened to.

The contrast to this sensationalism is the adequate time Kunkel spends with a handful of Pearlman's Ponzi victims. These interviews are dry and the director can't find any real way to visualize or expand on the stories, yet he's clearly aware that these civilians had more dramatic lows and none of the highs when compared to Pearlman's celebrity cohorts. Nobody would ever make a documentary just about the Ponzi victims, but they offer substance to a film that otherwise would rather concentrate on the sizzle.

In its piecemeal construction, some moments completely ineffective, some moments dry and persuasive, others compelling and damning, The Boy Band Con is designed for the distracted way people watch YouTube in general and most TV in specific these days. There are soundbites that are tailor-made for viral tweeting, others that practically beg you to pause your viewing to go dig up other clips and then plenty of scenes that can probably just pass unnoticed while you're doing other things.

Production companies: A YouTube Originals presents a Pilgrim Media Group and Lance Bass Productions film
Director: Aaron Kunkel
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second)
Premieres: April 3 (YouTube Premium)