On Sunday night, with Andy out of town, I indulged in a $6.99 rental of Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of, a documentary about the Backstreet Boys.
For a woman of a certain age (read: mine), I would highly recommend this nostalgic romp through our adolescence. It took me some time to get into the flow and conceit of the documentary, but by the end I was dancing around to the credits (a compendium of 20th anniversary tour performances of their classic hits) and thoroughly freaking out my cat.
BSB’s 2013 album In a World Like This is a regular on my Spotify rotation, but I didn’t realize the story behind it, which is where this documentary starts. As a nod to their 20th anniversary, the Boys got together at a house in London and spent three weeks writing and recording songs. The first revelation of the movie for me was that they all play instruments (plural). Who knew! One of them said in the movie that they’re “a vocal harmony group,” and though I had never thought about them as more than a boy band, I realized that he was right. I LOVE harmony, and that would explain why I’ve always liked their music so much. In their early days, they toured around to high school gyms, sometimes singing a capella, and the clips included in the movie really highlighted what talented singers they are.
The beginning of the movie lacks some context. It dives right in and is not chronological. There are weird camera angles, as if it wants to be an art film rather than a documentary about a boy band. But hang in there. Things start making more sense before too long.
My second revelation was that 9-12 year old Laura really knew very little about this band that she liked. They were young when they got started—Nick was only 11. There was also a weirdly wide gap in ages between him and some of the others! So they’re now around 40 (and I have to say, Nick has aged quite well). Though I’d hardly have classified them as rock ‘n roll, they were not immune to the lifestyles struggles made famous on VH1’s Behind the Music. Girls, drugs, alcohol, epic road trips that spanned years at a time. Present-day Brian Littrell (who, by the way, is now a contemporary Christian artist that I had unwittingly sung along with on 104.7 The Fish and lives in Atlanta with his equally evangelically inclined wife) has some trouble with his vocal chords, which led to some nasty fights erupting in the London house. We got to see it all, and hear Nick Carter say the F-word. Don’t tell 12-year-old Laura.
Ultimately these are 5 guys who grew up together and have tons of fun with each other. That’s what really came through in the movie. I didn’t care so much about watching them in the studio, but the history was really fun for me (though WHAT were the late 90s clothes?!). They drove around on camera and visited all of their hometowns, including some old family houses and elementary schools. Each of them seemed to have a figure who really “recognized” them as kids and encouraged them to pursue music. At the time they were popular, I’m sure a lot of people would have disparaged calling what they made “music,” but the documentary really explores how talented they all are. It was surprising to me, given the personal bent it took, that we never “met” their wives in the movie, but maybe they’re not famous enough anymore that the Boys want their families to be household names.
The whole situation with Lou Perlman, their manager/organizer, royally screwing them over was something I had been aware of, but in a childish way. As an adult, watching other adults talk about how he had messed them up as teenagers, was much more poignant. Evidently he’s still in jail for what he did.
I was 9 when the Backstreet Boys had their first big hit, and I’m pretty sure I bought it as a cassette tape single. I still know all the words to the majority of their radio releases, and then some. They were a large part of the soundtrack of my adolescent years. At some point in the movie, I thought, “Oh, maybe I’m just not enough of a fan girl to really enjoy this.” But by the end, my inner tween was squealing, and I was pretty psyched to read that they are recording a 9th album. I’ve no shame in admitting that I’ll probably buy it, or at least stream it on Spotify.
I don’t know if the Backstreet Boys mania reached Beatles levels, but that’s all I can think to compare it to. There are other groups that received similar acclaim and to whom I’d have a similarly nostalgic response, but they don’t have documentaries about them available on iTunes. If you’re a child of the late 80s, or maybe even the parent of one (meaning you were subjected to fandom by extension), Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of is worth the price of admission.