In the '90s, the Backstreet Boys were his enemy. They were bubble-gum pop -- a manufactured quintet made up of guys who wore matching sports jerseys and sang about the shape of their hearts.
They were everything Stephen Kijak was against. He wore black and liked musicians who did too, like the Cure. So when production company Pulse Films asked him to direct a documentary about the BSB -- ugh, a cutesy nickname! -- he balked.
“That’s what you brought me? You work with Nick Cave, Blur, LCD Soundsystem, and you bring me the Backstreet Boys? Yeah, I don’t think so,” recalled Kijak, 45.
But then he met with the band, and they said they were more interested in emulating Metallica’s documentary than Justin Bieber’s. Plus, group members were at a pivotal moment: their 20th anniversary. Kevin Richardson had just returned to the band after a six-year hiatus. And they were just about to start recording a new album in London.
“They didn’t have anything to lose,” Kijak said. “They didn’t have a record deal and sort of weren’t sure if anybody cared about them anymore. They felt like underdogs.”
Which is kind of crazy for a group that has sold 130 million albums worldwide, toured in more than 100 countries and received seven Grammy nominations. But as viewers learn in “Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of,” which debuted in limited release and on video-on-demand Friday, even that list of accomplishments won’t earn you much respect when you’re a grown man in a boy band.
Yes, the Backstreet Boys -- Richardson, 43; Howie Dorough, 41; Brian Littrell, 39; AJ McLean, 37; and Nick Carter, 35 -- are adults now. They’re all married and have kids, except for Carter, who wed his wife only a few months ago. But hanging out by the rooftop pool of a trendy Hollywood hotel last week a few hours before their movie’s red carpet premiere, they hardly looked like soccer dads. There was a blingy dog tag hanging from Carter’s neck, and McLean kept his sunglasses on despite the fact that it was 4 p.m. on an overcast Thursday.
“I want Champagne. Anyone want Champagne?” Littrell asked, settling into a canopy.
“You gettin’ some sparkly?” Dorough asked.
“Yeah,” Littrell said. “Let’s rock the rosé.”
McLean, who has battled alcohol and drug addiction for more than a decade, abstained. His struggles with sobriety are discussed in the film -- Richardson recalls once finding McLean in a “coke coma” -- as are Littrell’s serious vocal issues and the band’s relationship with Lou Pearlman, who put together the group in 1993 but later went to jail.
“When we decided we were going to make a documentary film, we said, ‘OK, well, we don’t want it to be a ‘VH1 Behind the Music,’ because we’ve already done that,” explained Richardson, who still sports the same overly manicured goatee he did two decades ago.
Carter, who has starred in two reality shows, was the one who first suggested that the group make a documentary. He’d seen “Beats, Rhymes & Life,” the 2011 film about A Tribe Called Quest, and was left with a “nostalgic feeling,” wanting to revisit the hip-hop group’s music.
“I thought doing something similar would be a cool way to reintroduce ourselves to fans who may not have kept up with us -- a cool way to rekindle that love,” he said.
But the movie also served as a way to bring the men closer together. They decided to visit one another’s hometowns for the first time and film the experience, which proved surprisingly emotional for some members. In Kentucky, Richardson broke down outside the home he grew up in as he recounted his father’s final days battling cancer. In Florida, Carter dissolved into tears after his elementary school drama teacher presented him with a video of him performing in a play.
“I have no idea why I’m crying. I think it has a lot to do with all the bad stuff that I have gone through,” he choked out. “I’ve only got like a couple of things to hold onto over the years, and this is one of them.”
They also were forced to face their feelings about Pearlman, who in 2008 pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy and money laundering and was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. Richardson says in the film that Pearlman was not only recouping his investment on the band, but also was taking his cut as a manager and getting paid as the sixth member of the group.
“Everything we pulled in in the first couple of years -- he was making 70% of it,” Richardson explained. “We barely saw any of that.”
Added Littrell, anger evident in his voice: “We did five sold-out tours in Europe, and I had $88,000 in my bank account.”
But they all realize that if it weren't for Pearlman, they wouldn’t be here today, said Dorough, who in the film recalls how he watched his first pornography videos at Pearlman’s swanky mansion. “We were lucky to have a contract. We were a bunch of middle-class kids working at Long John Silver’s and Disney. We all thought we had the golden ticket.”
The group had planned to visit Pearlman in prison -- “to just ask him ‘Why?’” Dorough said -- but the warden wouldn’t approve the request because of security issues.
Not that there wasn’t plenty of other drama for Kijak to dive into. As it turned out, the cameras provided an outlet for the band to discuss Littrell’s muscle tension dysphonia, which had severely altered the quality and consistency of his voice. In one heated scene, Littrell and Carter get into a curse-heavy fight during which Carter shouts: “I’m not afraid of you anymore! What about [expletive] vocals on songs? Are we going to talk about the fact that you don’t necessarily sound as good as you used to?”
Kijak remembered when he first reviewed the footage. “I was like, ‘This is good. We needed some drama!’ You don’t see freaking One Direction screaming and shouting at each other like that. They’re only twentysomething, so where’s the story?”
With the band set to record a new album this summer, Littrell said his voice is still causing him trouble. Though he was able to participate in the group’s 145-date “In a World Like This” tour last year, he said he was unable to speak just five months ago. He continues to go to therapy -- blowing into a straw, listening to white noise -- to improve the condition.
But as worried as he is about being able to sing, he’s more concerned with being taken seriously when he does.
“With the term ‘boy band’ -- people toss it to the side and think it was a generational movement that won’t happen again,” he said. “And yet we’re still kicking. We’ve been nominated for a ton of Grammys but have never won. It would be nice, from an industry standpoint, for someone to go, ‘Hey, well done.’”
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