Boy bands have a long musical history, but the mid-to-late ’90s will always be the golden era of the genre. Back then, five fresh faces clad in white denim overalls dancing in a mega-arena were platinum record making machines for the recording industry (remember when that still existed?). But despite the incredible success of New Kids on the Block, ‘N SYNC and the Backstreet Boys, the critics plus the cool kids saw little more than dueling quintets of hair product lip syncing to over-produced tracks.
Flash forward 15 years, and former ‘N SYNC member Justin Timberlake seems to have gotten the ultimate laugh, but the other major boy bands have proved surprisingly resilient. NKOTB currently stars in a reality show about their wildly popular themed cruises, while the Backstreet Boys have been filling stadiums worldwide for more than two years. The return of BSB is the subject of a new feature film documentary, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of (now in select theaters and on VOD), which follows the return of former BSB member Kevin Richardson to the group in 2012 as the original five got together to write and rehearse for what they hoped would be a successful comeback. No longer boys, BSB deals with their shot knees, strained voices and many personal demons as they make themselves a cohesive group once again. Along for the ride was out music documentary director Stephen Kijak, who directed Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, a film produced by David Bowie, and Stones in Exile, a doc about the Rolling Stones’ seminal 1972 album, Exile on Main Street. With that kind of pedigree, Kijak initially resisted taking on BSB as a subject, but was soon won over when he realized the opportunity he had in front of him. Queerty talked to Kijak about shooting in the Boys’ hometowns, gay fans, and Lou Pearlman, the notorious businessman who masterminded BSB, but also saw his life collapse under a storm of financial and sexual scandal.
Stephen Kijak: I was more of a Pixies & PJ Harvey kinda’ guy — BSB was the enemy as far as I was concerned. But it was time to take the alt.rock chip off my shoulder and just embrace it! They were a phenomenon — and there’s no denying their pop cred. They were in a way starting over with this new album and tour, so it was a good place for them to be from a storytelling perspective. As far as how I got involved, the producer I made Scott Walker: 30 Century Man with, Mia Bays, had jumped on this as a producer and she more or less made me do it. I’m glad she did.
It’s a pendulum, there’s always going to be a revival moment and it seems like this is it. But it’s nice to see BSB getting love for their new tunes at concerts as well as the hits. They do put on a hell of a show. The fans have aged with them but they seem to still love a good scream. There has to be screaming.
Do you think music critics and musicians in general need to better
appreciate the music of the pre-millennial boy band era? Sort of like what happened to ABBA in the ‘90s? Or is this resurgence fun nostalgia for their aging fans?
A bit of both I think, but what I wasn’t prepared to experience was the level of craft they had mastered vocally. BSB always saw themselves as part of a tradition of vocal harmony groups — the boy band tag was a way to identify and market them, but these guys can really fucking sing. So yes, I think a lot has gotten in the way of allowing them to be critically appreciated, but in their genre, they’re exemplary.
Not really. It’s like that on all films like this but they were trusting and yes, we had to navigate mountains of notes at times but we all feel like we made the film we wanted to make. It’s a bargain you strike when you take it on. There’s always going to be some compromise and negotiation, but that happens on any project.
What was the biggest challenge in getting the film shot? Things get pretty personal, plus the band was in hard-core rehearsal mode for what looks like much of the shoot.
The shot was more spread out than you might think. It wasn’t that challenging to be honest. I think the biggest challenge was to find the time to interview them—that was done during the rehearsal process and they were running behind and exhausted so time was short, but I think being fatigued helped me. Their guard was down. The emotional stuff, the road trip and all that, it was harder on them than it was on me. I was enjoying the process (but) that hometown stuff is the real heart of the film for me.
The film was their idea, so yeah, they were up for anything.
How much of the narrative was laid in terms of what you wanted to tell? Were you often filming not knowing exactly what you were going to get?
That was the purpose of the hometown trips. It sounded corny on the surface but once we started doing it, there was surprising depth and emotion there. And then, of course, we never really knew what was going to happen with the album or the tour — there were actually quite a lot of unknowns that shaped how we told the story. The stuff we know about, the years when they were on top of the world, we compressed those into the smallest part of the film. I wanted to dig into the past and experience the present.
We discovered it later. Howie (Dorough, one of the two native Floridian Backstreet Boys) ran into their old friend Kari Sellards on a plane right when we were starting. She worked for the band in the early days filming and photographing everything. She managed to get me mountains of photos and a box full of old Hi 8 video. She claims there’s even more stashed somewhere in her apartment but with what she gave us we were able to really experience their formative years in a way I don’t think any one has ever really seen.
You show lots of the BSB fans that still show up when the guys are out, but we only see women in the film. Were there ever gay fanboys out and about along with the fangirls?
If you look carefully there’s a sequence of fans outside the London studio — there’s a few guys in that scene. It is predominantly women, but I must say BSB did a gig at Heaven in London during Pride and the room was heaving. The gay boys gave them a lot of love. It was a great show.
Well, my producer is a woman and neither of us were fans so I think it was a unique perspective. I think some of the straight guys who were involved at the producing level may have thought, like I said, that the hometown trip would be corny and thought we shouldn’t do it, or were looking for an edgier, darker maybe slightly more ironic take on the band, but we just leaned into the emotion and took them for what they are — I mean, they are corny, a bit square, they’re not “cool” but they don’t pretend to be. But what does that even mean, really? Ultimately, it’s about story and character, and my philosophy is always to try and make a film in sympathy with your subject. That will guide you through it.
The film goes into depth about BSB’s creation story and the rise and fall of the businessman who created them, Lou Pearlman. But the guys only tell about his financial mismanagement, and do not delve into the sexual misconduct allegations that were also part of his downfall. Was that a conscious choice? Why not talk about that if everything else was on the table?
We did talk about it in interviews but it yielded nothing. Honestly, they really didn’t divulge anything. We didn’t shy away from it, but if you really track the story from their point of view, and ‘N SYNC say the same thing, that they never experienced anything to the degree that others have claimed in later years. Are they just protecting each other? I don’t know. But it’s all there in print for people to read if they want more dirt on that front. I mean, Howie cops to watching porn at Lou’s house. I know everyone wants something salacious on that front, but that’s all we got.
So because Queerty is in some ways not unlike a teen magazine from the ’90s, who do you think is the most dreamy BSB? And the second most dreamy? And why? Please answer as earnestly as possible.
My professional relationship with BSB prevents me from answering such questions.