By Octavio Karbank
The first concert I ever attended was the Backstreet Boys back in 1999. I saw them again in 2013. Needless to say, seeing as I’m writing a review about their latest documentary Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of, they left quite the impression. Since then I’ve been a life-long fan. Of course I knew about the group before I even went to that first show, and while the band formed in 1993, if you want to get technical, ’98 and ’99 were the years they really blew up across the U.S. Even so, they would first have to become famous in Europe and then Canada before finally making their mark on history and an entire generation within the United States of America.
If you grew up in the 90s, then you grew up to the Backstreet Boys at some point or another. Nick Carter, AJ McLean, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, and Kevin Richardson; their legacy is undeniable. Even though other boy bands like Boys to Men and New Kinds of the Block came before, the Backstreet Boys emerged at a time when people were especially open to the idea of listening to teenagers sing upbeat pop music. That, in my opinion, was one of the many keys to their success: their music was fun.
Usually I don’t put stock into those Fandango advertisements you see in theaters before the actual previews. Thankfully, this time I did, otherwise I might’ve missed out on the special screening of their documentary. What made it “special”? Well, there was a live show that followed the movie’s credits, beaming in from London to every theater playing the movie. However, that’s not what makes Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of special with a capital S. It’s everything in between; the journey that comprises the legacy of the Backstreet Boys.
Do you remember the song that launched the Backstreet Boys to stardom in the U.S.? I didn’t. At least not until I saw the movie. Here, let me remind you what it was:
Leaping across the airwaves, We’ve Got It Going made them famous virtually overnight. I don’t remember where I was when I first heard the song, only everything that came later and the popular craze that developed around them and all the other musical groups to jump on the boy band bandwagon. Yet that wasn’t the song that introduced them to the United States, but rather Quit Playing Games With My Heart:
At one point in the documentary, the group reminisces about how they wish it wasn’t that video that presented them to the general public. As you watch it, you see why. Fortunately, Quit Playing Games With My Heart led to We’ve Got It Going and then finally the classics that, for all in tense and purposes, have come to define the Backstreet Boys as we know them today: Everybody and Larger than Life; though let us not forget I Want It That Way.
The Backstreet Boys was, and is, comprised of extremely talented individuals. They get a bad rap occasionally, like most boy bands, if only because they were, well, a boy band. But like many artists who succeeded tremendously, their journey has been long, difficult and nothing short of extraordinary. If anything, Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of perfectly captures everything that made the group who they are today.
Director Stephen Kijak does an excellent job in keeping the flow going and story organic, while allowing the guys to be as they are. Occasionally you forget you’re watching a documentary as you become enraptured by the everyday banter these guys share. Having been together and involved in one another’s lives for almost a quarter of a century, even their fights are a part of the band’s fabric. They’re like a family in that regard; families fight, laugh, and love. Those things simply come with the territory.
I also learned about the little things, like the fairly dramatic age difference between band members. I had no idea that Kevin, the oldest, was twenty-two, while at the same time, Nick, the youngest, was only fourteen. When you see footage both from their younger days to how they are now, you can tell the age difference sometimes got in the way. It’s difficult to go out partying when you’re eighteen to twenty-two when one of your band members is eight years your junior.
You have everything from AJ and Nick’s various run-ins with drugs and alcohol, to Brian’s struggle with producers’ apathetic attitude towards his having open-heart surgery while still a teen; despite this personal trauma, he was still forced to continue performing. Then you have the group breaking up, but eventually coming back together again in such a way that they were never truly gone, merely forgotten for a little while. Even the group’s founder, Lou Perlman, went from serving as a mentor and father figure, to eventually betraying the band by helping create NSYNC on the side, as something of a contingency plan in case the Backstreet Boys flopped. Eventually, he ended up in jail for a Ponzi scheme.
It gets to the point where you realize the Backstreet Boys’ history is as complex, heart wrenching, and fascinating as any comic book or television character, and it’s minutiae like this that only adds to their intriguing mythology. There is real depth and emotional struggle to these men, both now and then, and watching them interact, after having been together for over twenty years, is quite extraordinary.
Manufactured though the Backstreet Boys were, there was still something unabashedly earnest in their music and music videos. And while they might have been cheesy, like many things from the era, there’s also an unmistakably purity and joviality about them. Maybe that’s part of what attracted people to them in the first place. There’s a reason people still attend their shows today. The Backstreet Boys were and are a household name and that’s not liable to change anytime soon.
With that I leave you safe in the knowledge that the Backstreet Boys will be back to perform again soon, and a final video from the movie This Is The End, documenting the solidity of the group’s place in popular culture. Backstreet’s back, folks!
Octavio Karbank is a writer and bona fide Whovian. Living in Massachusetts, you can find him on Twitter @TymeHunter and his blog www.cozmicventures.com