Directed by Stephen Kijak
At the height of their fame The Backstreet Boys represented with their harmonious voices and cherub good looks a newfound idealism in the American landscape. Not without talent, their selling point as much their image as their sound: they were chosen to be branded. Offering context to the tumultuous early years and how their experienced shaped their identity and worth over the years, the new documentary Backstreet Boys: Show em’ What You’re Made of documents the production of a new album from the former boy group.
Touched with an overwhelming sadness, the film depicts a fairly universal struggle associated with growing up. As the band members come to terms with the fact that they have become men over the years, they are torn between what they were and what they have become. Moving back and forth through time, different aspects of the group’s upbringing are brought to life. As some members yearned for an escape from their abusive home life, others treated the group as a surrogate family: with varying degrees of enthusiasm, they all yearned to be performers. Their involvement in The Backstreet Boys forever changed the direction of their lives, but also ultimately has effaced their sense of identity. Most of the members express the fear, anxiety and pain of losing themselves to the bigger picture – whether at the sacrifice of their health, or at the expense of their psychological well-being.
While there are many overhanging narrative threads, the central one surrounds Brian – the once lead singer of the group – who is now struggling to regain his former voice. Whether psychological or physiological, his singing voice has deteriorated to the point where other band members and producers of the album even question his inclusion in the reunion. Seemingly at the verge of tears through most of the film, Brian pushes himself to the limit with very little indication of improvement. As all the members suffer with identity, Brian’s is the most pained, as he is forced to confront the possibility that the voice that defined most of his life might be gone forever.
There is a similar discomfort in the film regarding the music itself. There is a distinct discomfort in several scenes where the band members return to their childhood schools, as none of the prepubescent students really have little understanding of who these men are: much of the Backstreet Boys fans from the 90s and 2000s have settled into adulthood, it is their children who are now going to school and ultimately dictating the pop cultural trends.The Backstreet Boys may have been important for one generation of young people, but their legacy has been obscured and replaced by stronger acts who have had more lasting power. And for the music? Sneak peeks at their new album doesn’t offer much hope for a huge revival. While the harmonies remain the same, there is a sense of lost time as their music feels ultimately out of touch with the new layers and complexities of contemporary popular music. It seems unlikely that a complete breakaway from the tried and true methods of their youth is advisable, but concurrently their work feels out fashioned without being retro-cool.
These intricacies and overall sense that there is no way The Backstreet Boys will ever touch on their former fame only adds more layers of interest to the documentary. It also reveals the group to be passionate and loyal to their former fanbase, who are still willing to go out and see them – perhaps not to discover their new music, but to similarly revel in their own glory days. It reveals a group of men who are simultaneously part of the zeitgeist and yet, totally out of step with it as well. While time has moved in, and much has changed, they seem almost trapped in the anxieties and expectations of their youth.
Backstreet Boys: Show em’ What You’re Made of will be a great treat for fans of the group, but also offers a lot to the more casual viewer. A portrait of the political and cultural milieu of a pre September 11th America, we understand the particular forces that inspired the rise of the band’s fame. The film itself is very self-reflexive on the nature of the music industry, in particular the behind the scenes dealings that at least attempt to dictate popular tastes and trends. At it’s heart though, the film is a bittersweet portrait of friendship and growing up.