Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of.
Jean Lynch chats to film producer Mia Bays about telling the story of one of the world’s biggest boy bands.
This Thursday, 26th February, 2015, sees a very special live cinema event in venues around the country. One of the world’s best-selling boy bands, The Backstreet Boys – Kevin Richardson, Brian Littrell, Nick Carter, A.J. McLean & Howie Dorough – takes to the screen in a feature-length documentary, followed by a live satellite performance. However, if you’re thinking this is just one for the fans, think again.
Produced by Pulse Films, who have been responsible for critically-acclaimed music documentaries Shut Up And Play The Hits, the story behind LCD’s last live performance, Katy Perry’s Part Of Me, and the award-winning No Distance Left To Turn, featuring Blur, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of is more than the story of five teenage boys who conquered the world; it is an unflinching, honest and sometimes heart-breakingly painful account of what it’s like to be thrown into the spotlight, become rich and successful beyond your wildest dreams, and to cope – or not cope – with everything that brings. With band member Nick Carter just 13 years old when the band formed in 1993, it charts an almost Faustian pact. Put together by billionaire impressario Lou Pearl, their meteoric path to success was paved with excess, temptation, conflict & betrayal. Many might not be here to tell the tale but the Backstreet Boys, they just kept right on going.
Having sold a staggering 130 million records worldwide, with hits such as ‘Quit Playing Games With My Heart’, ‘As Long As You Love Me’ and the immortal ‘Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)’, 2012 saw the band without a record contract and original member Kevin Richardson returned to the fold, following an almost seven-year absence. With the intention of funding a new album themselves, the five men enjoyed a new found creative and personal freedom as they took up residence in a house together, away from home and their families, in the UK. With a growing awareness that they had a real story to tell, their thoughts turned to relating that through the medium of film.
Producer Mia Bays, of Missing In Action Films, was the woman charged with realising their vision. She says: “The film was initiated by the band. They were coming back together after Kevin having been away and were in London to start their new album. They hired a production company called Pulse and they then hired me.” The producer of an Oscar winner, multiple BAFTA and BIFA nominees, working across both docs and fiction with talent such as Martin McDonagh, Ben Whishaw, Eran Creevy, Lucy Walker, Riz Ahmed, Plan B, Stephen Kijak, Scott Walker & David Bowie, it’s probably fair to say that Mia wasn’t the band’s biggest fan.
“I couldn’t stand them!” She admits, cheerfully. However, she had a nose for interesting stories and the three weeks she was initially given to work with and get close to the band, to see how the idea could develop, convinced her. “As a filmmaker, I’m not interested in [making] films for the money. I like bigger things.” What appealed was the band’s journey from the boys they were then to the men they are now. And, on being told that the brief was Backstreet Boys make [acclaimed music documentary] Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, she said “I’m in!”
Those first three weeks resulted in a 20 minute promo which displayed the beginning of a very real, very human story – one of perseverance. She told Pulse Films “I think there is a film in here”.
She says: “We did not really know what was going to happen but we had a lot of conversations. I said [to the band] ‘if you are going to do this, we need everything’ and they said ‘we have spent our whole lives being considerate of what we say’, they wanted to be really honest.”
While raising the money for the next stage of production, she and band member Kevin Richardson discussed the film’s direction. They came up with the idea for all of them to visit their hometowns together, after Kevin made the observation that there was a lot of stuff they still didn’t know about each other. It was at this point, following more filming in New York and after seeing the direction the film was taking, with Mia’s cut of the initial footage with editor Ben Stark, that director Stephen Kijak came on board. He and Mia had previously collaborated on their own acclaimed music documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.
Mia says: “We spent a week on a tour bus, all around Florida, then on to Kentucky, and then we kept following their story”, taking in 18 months, on and off. Each band member’s return to the places of their childhood throws up poignant and revealing moments. Howie speaks of how his pet rabbits did what rabbits do best and they ended up with 45. His father had a practical solution that didn’t go down too well with his 12-year-old-son. A.J. reveals a talent for ballet dancing and also how he overcame a stutter. Kevin breaks down when he talks about his father. Nick recalls his parents arguing, fighting and firing off guns for the hell of it.
But the most harrowing visit is reserved for their return to the home of Lou Pearlman.
A key element of the film was to be the first meeting, after many years, between the band and their former manager. Having created them, swindled them out of millions and made a rival for them in the shape of N-Sync, Pearlman now resides in a state penitentiary, serving time for one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in US history, along with countless other bad business debts.
The question they wanted answering was “why?” On screen, Brian says: “You feel sorry for the guy but he had every opportunity to make it right – and he didn’t. That’s what probably hurts the most”.
“The original plan – and the band really wanted to do this – was to go and speak to Lou Pearlman and to film that interview, ” says Mia. “They had not seen each other for a long time but the prison refused us three times. But we’re really happy we didn’t do this as it would have put a very different voice into the film and would have changed it.” Pearlman’s physical absence from the film only serves to highlight the search for those answers, and the band open up on the subject like never before.
However, there is a difference between being honest and being exposed, and for one band member, being persuaded to share what he was going through, facing a very real challenge to his health and career, was the start of a healing process.
Says Mia: “Every time Brian did a solo, they would stop us filming and I asked them why do you do that – and it was my job to ask that”.
The answer was that Brian was suffering from vocal cord dysphonia and the neurological condition dystonia, which was both threatening his singing voice and leading to tensions within the band. His brave decision to allow his battle to be shown on screen is a key element in raising the documentary from just a story about a band to a universal story to which audiences can relate. “I just want to be me” he says. In the film, we witness how the unpredictability of his vocals has an impact on the band, causing them to fall behind in their recording schedule. They admit no one likes to talk about it, leading to a heated showdown between Brian and Nick.
“It was a big deal”, says Mia, “and actually us filming the confrontation ended up being cathartic and made them closer in some ways. It’s been a real struggle for him. No one really knows why it happens, it’s a challenge. For him it’s a relief to talk about it, to have it out in the open.”
Fortunately, it doesn’t affect him enough so as not to perform, and there are still the legions of fans for whom not one of the band can do wrong. And it’s for the fans that the band wanted to make the film.
Mia describes the film’s premiere in LA to 800 fans in January this year as “a very special moment” and the band have been “humbled” by the many favourable reviews from critics who, in their earlier years, were quite hard on them, and the interest they now have in their story. “That really touched them, that people still cared”.
From boys to men, Backstreet’s back and, with a new album and tour in the pipeline, the band are larger than life and more inspired and keen to carry on than ever before.
Here’s to the next 20 years!
Released in cinemas nationwide on Thursday February 26 2015, 7pm Film screening followed by a special performance by the band Broadcast live by satellite. backstreetboys.com/bsbthemovie #BSBTHEMOVIE