Review: ‘The New Edition Story’ treats the boy band with the respect it deserves
Before One Direction, before ’N Sync, before New Kids on the Block, there was New Edition, the fresh-faced R&B outfit that brought the boy band into the modern pop era.
The group’s importance, as a crucial bridge between the foundational acts of the 1960s (think the Beatles and Jackson 5) and today’s tightly managed merchandising machines, is an established fact among fans and fellow artists like Bruno Mars, who channeled New Edition’s bright mid-’80s sound on last year’s “24K Magic.”
But not unlike Puerto Rico’s Menudo, New Edition — which spawned the careers of Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill and the spinoff group Bell Biv DeVoe — hasn’t always received the mainstream recognition it deserves, in large part because its members weren’t white.
Redressing that injustice feels like the worthy goal of “The New Edition Story,” a painstaking three-night miniseries premiering Tuesday on BET that traces the group’s long journey from Boston’s housing projects to the top of the charts. With close attention paid to every pivotal moment and creative breakthrough — not to mention each instance of internal friction — the biopic treats New Edition as seriously as “8 Mile” and “Walk the Line” do their more widely respected subjects. (It’s not hard to imagine that the success of 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton” helped clear this movie’s path.)
Yet what makes “The New Edition Story” such a pleasure — and it is one — is how lightly it wears that purpose. Even as it stretches toward the six-hour mark, the film maintains a crisp forward momentum.
Its principal engine is music: Director Chris Robinson never goes long without dropping in one of New Edition’s songs, which he cleverly stages as parts of rehearsals, concerts or recording sessions; the choice allows him to use full songs without slowing the narrative.
The tunes have aged better than many relics of the ’80s. “Candy Girl,” “Cool It Now,” “Mr. Telephone Man” — each still thrums with emotion, as do later, more mature tunes like “If It Isn’t Love” and the deathless “Can You Stand the Rain,” both from New Edition’s high-water 1988 album, “Heart Break.” (Several of the group’s original producers, including Babyface and the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, worked on the movie’s music.)
It’s Robinson’s strong cast, though, that takes you inside the songs, revealing the complicated relationships behind the slick marketing that set a template for so many of the acts New Edition influenced.
Especially good are Algee Smith as Tresvant, the group’s sweet-voiced frontman who keeps re-balancing his solo aspirations with his loyalty to his childhood friends, and Bryshere Y. Gray (from “Empire”) as the rough-edged Michael Bivins.
Yet there’s not a weak link among the stars, and the presence of several real-life R&B singers — most notably Luke James, who plays the big-voiced Gill — lends an appealing meta quality to the film, as though it’s demonstrating the effect of precisely what it’s dramatizing.
By the end, when the group flames out before making a heroic comeback on (what else?) a BET special, that self-awareness comes close to self-aggrandizement — inevitable, perhaps, given that New Edition’s members acted as executive producers.
Then again, as the movie shows, no one ever volunteered to do their bragging for them.
‘The New Edition Story’
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Part 1
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)
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