When BET announced in 2015 that its first scripted miniseries would take on the iconic singing group New Edition, the excitement in R&B circles was instant. The concept of a movie centering on the rise, fall and resurrection of one of the most iconic and influential singing groups in soul music had the potential to be a true crowd-pleaser.
But along with the buzz came the questions: Would the group, particularly its most high-profile and controversial member Bobby Brown, be involved? Would the project have the rights to the hit songs? Would it cover the good, the bad and the ugly?
Producers of the film, particularly considering the group’s continuing popularity, felt the pressure. During the filming of a relatively innocuous winter scene last summer at a Hollywood recording studio, they were visibly concerned about how “The New Edition Story” would be received by the group’s loyal fans and viewers — especially the hard-to-please Black Twitter community.
“That’s the real Siskel and Ebert,” executive producer Jesse Collins said, referencing the classic film critic duo. “There’s a lot of pressure. We just tried to focus on telling the story. Hopefully, people will love it.”
As he talked, technicians worked on a scene that explored one of the key moments in the group’s roller-coaster journey — arriving to work on its seminal “Heart Break” album, the first to feature Johnny Gill after Brown’s acrimonious exit, with powerhouse producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.)
The anxiousness surrounding the film was understandable. Biopics, especially made-for-TV projects, have met with intense public scrutiny — and skepticism. A spate of biopics centered on black artists, including Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, TLC and N.W.A, were met with mixed reaction, controversy and even litigation.
Nevertheless, BET not only moved forward, but aimed high with an ambitious, three-night miniseries on the group, which is still so beloved it can pack arenas more than 30 years after its debut. The musical drama premieres Tuesday and concludes Thursday.
Getting the story right was the key consideration for those involved. All six members of the group — Brown, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant — served as producers, as did New Edition’s longtime manager and choreographer, Brooke Payne.
Maurice Starr, who Svengalied them to pop stardom with bubblegum R&B hits he crafted, consulted, while Jam, Lewis and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, — superstar producers who previously worked with the group, collectively or on solo projects — handled music for the film.
We’re at the point in our lives personally and professionally where we feel like we can tell the story and really open it up.
New Edition sold millions of records, catapulted Brown, Gill and Tresvant to solo success and launched two splinter groups, Heads of State and Bell Biv DeVoe, whose megahit “Poison” remains an earworm 26 years after its release.
But for all its tightly choreographed moves and smooth soulful harmonies — NSync, Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees owe them some credit — years of interpersonal drama underscored the success. Tensions raged over lead singing parts and bitter rivalries. Brown eventually was voted out over his unpredictable behavior. A contentious reunion tour exploded with an onstage brawl.
The film exposed the tumultuous journey, which group members were able to confront with a sense of understanding and insight.
“We’re at the point in our lives personally and professionally where we feel like we can tell the story and really open it up,” Bell said. “We prided ourselves on keeping our dirty laundry, so to speak, to ourselves. It was challenging opening up old wounds and talking about things we haven’t discussed.”
Despite having not released material since 2004, New Edition continues to perform (with and without Brown). Its members still put out music on their own — spinoff hip-hop outfit Bell Biv DeVoe soon will release its first album in nearly 16 years.
“This is a story of brotherhood that speaks to our community,” Bell said. “It brought a lot of clarity to us as friends. We held onto it for a while, and I’m glad because I believe that it’s really the right time for us.”
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