With 130 million albums sold, the Backstreet Boys are the bestselling boy band in history — not counting the Beatles, of course. But as member AJ McLean wonders, “What do you do when you’re a full-grown man in a boy band?”
McLean’s earnest question provides the crux of the band’s new documentary film, “Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of.”
Directed by Stephen Kijak (“Stones in Exile”), the film revisits the platinum hits, slick dance moves, flashy music videos, blockbuster tours and rabid fans that made the band a phenomenon.
Two decades after declaring they’ve “got it goin’ on” in their debut single, the group is still going.Kijak got unfettered access as the boys — sorry, men — prepare to mark their 20th anniversary with a new album and world tour after fully reuniting. (Member Kevin Richardson returned in 2012 after a six-year hiatus.)
The director traces Backstreet to its origins as a group manufactured in Orlando, Fla., by now-jailed promoter Lou Pearlman in the early ‘90s. That’s followed by the group reaching critical mass in Europe and then stateside, adapting to shifting tastes within the industry. Personal trials and discord are explored through candid interviews and behind the scenes footage paired with archived clips and tour performances.
The film’s most intimate moments come from past hardships, such as McLean’s battle with alcohol and substance abuse, lead vocalist Brian Littrell’s open-heart surgery at the band’s peak and his current struggle with vocal tension, Richardson’s departure and Howie Dorough’s feelings of being marginalized.
Kijak spent two years following members of the group, traveling to London as they crafted the 2013 album “In a World Like This” independently, rehearsing for the tour and reconnecting over hometown visits. It all ultimately amounts to a warts-free appreciation of their legacy.
Not that the documentary is without its share of compelling drama.
Nick Carter is still haunted by childhood trauma and ongoing family strife (and other demons, just mentioned in passing), and Littrell is deeply insecure about his vocal problems leading to a curse-filled showdown during a business meeting.
Kijak, however, shies away from exposing deep divisions, and maybe the band’s role as producers hindered that.
A visit to Pearlman’s gutted former mansion could have been especially revelatory, considering the damage he did. (In 2008, he pleaded guilty to a stock investment scam, was convicted of conspiracy, money laundering and making false claims in court, and then was sentenced to 25 years in prison.) He gets off easy, here. Band members pity Pearlman, but they don’t address the allegations of sexual improprieties that also tarnished Pearlman’s reputation, making their reference to watching pornography at his house uncomfortable, and there’s only a brief mention of Pearlman’s “betrayal” of launching rival band ‘N Sync in the Backstreet Boys’ shadow.
The director and his subjects fail to explore what keeps a group together. We see no testimonies of failed solo careers, explore no efforts to maintain relevance and gain little insight into their resilience — and that’s a shame given how long they’ve managed to keep going. Backstreet Boys have lasted more than two decades for a reason.
But even if “Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of” doesn’t answer McLean’s essential question of what men do after life as a boy band, the carefully crafted film is an engaging look at how they got to here.
‘Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of’
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: AMC Universal Citywalk Stadium 19. Also on VOD