Kerthy Fix (Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields) Talks Stephen Kijak’s Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of

A larger than life portrait of the now grown-up boy band that's somewhat incomplete (but that's all they have to give).

Backstreet Boys Teen Beat Quiz Question #1
Youre on a date with dreamboat Nick and are hoping to get to know him better. Do you:
A) Visit his high school drama teacher?
B) Visit his high school music teacher?
C) Visit his childhood home?
D) Show him video of himself aged 10 in a school production of Phantom of the Opera?

The answer is:
All of the Above! Nick is the hot one, duh! And we want every treasured second of what makes him tick.

Oh, did I mention, we’re doing the same thing with all the members of the band? Wait. How long is this movie? If you’re a fan, you’ll probably relish every second of Backstreet Boys: ShowEm What Youre Made Of. However, for a non-believer, the film has the Boys (now in their late thirties) floating in a strange, disembodied soup of visits to high schools, uninhabited childhood homes and chic London recording studios.

While I realize that introducing a girlfriend or wife (or boyfriend??) into the film might break the precious contract made between Boy Band Pop Idol and Girl-now-Lady Fan — the agreement that keeps him just for you! — a fundamental awkwardness keeps intruding. We’re watching grown men trying to maintain the love of girl fans who are now grown women too. Girls-Now-Ladies who most likely have sex instead of mooning over fan mags.

But apparently it’s possible, the film tells us, to become a man in this scenario, and the Boys have done it. And while the film’s opening five minutes prepare us to watch exactly that fascinating transition — i.e., how does a boy band grow up? — as the film unspools, we start to doubt if that’s the film that’s actually before us.

Instead, ShowEm What Youre Made Of sets us adrift in Orlando, Florida, the Tigris and Euphrates for boy bands — a muddy drainage ditch where there are crocodiles (exciting!), but no paddles, no guides and no map. I currently work on a reality show about teens, so I can tell you that the scenes in this film should be cut shorter and people should be identified. And if a narrative thread is introduced — like “Kevin left the band” or “We don’t have a record deal” — it should be explained by film’s end.

Backstreet Boys Teen Beat Quiz Question #2
Youre on a date with Brian but you feel uncomfortable because he keeps paying for everything, yet you arent even sure where his money is coming from. Do you:
A) Ask him the question directly, say, in an interview?
B) Ask his bandmates, say, in an interview?
C) Use cards or voiceover to fill in the blanks?
D) Play along, hoping the information will come up at some point?
E) Stare into his dreamy, mysterious eyes and tell him hes perfect?

I played along. Early in the film, the band tells us they don’t have a record deal and are trying to write songs for an album in three weeks (which is portrayed as the sweetly naïve mistake of performers accustomed to having material handed to them in the studio by producers) and when, later in the film, they are suddenly on a big tour with a record, it’s never explained how this miracle came about. Wait, wasn’t that the structural spine we were supposed to hang on to? Again — no map, no oars.

And in a film where money plays a crucial role in the narrative — they were robbed by Lou Pearlman, the impresario who created the band and forced them to pay him $27 million to get out of their contract — it seems like record contracts ought to be explained. Oh, and did we mention that Pearlman also created the Boys’ knock-off and direct competition, Justin Timberlake’s old band, NSYNC? (Pearlman is now serving time for one of the largest and longest-running Ponzi schemes in American history.) How can money and record deals not get tracked here?

You’re thinking, “So what? It’s a film about a boy band. It should be fluffy good times and nothing more. They don’t deserve serious treatment.”

And while ShowEm What Youre Made Of is a documentary about Nick, A.J., Kevin, Brian and Howie, an all-boy harmony group who followed Menudo, New Edition and New Kids on the Block into the sweaty hearts of millions of screaming tweens, it’s also a film about people as commodities. People too young and disenfranchised to have authorship or ownership. A film about how to make and keep a family when that family betrays you.

And so, there’s quite a good film hidden somewhere inside this 105-minute meander. Many scenes have a haunting emotional punch. And there’s a distinct pleasure in taking a tour of late-’80s/early-’90s fashion and music with a group of boys who were clearly enjoying themselves.

Sure, maybe some scenes lack context and set-up (who the hell are those three other people in that meeting where Nick yells at Brian that he’s not scared of him anymore?), but there’s drama and emotion and revelations. It’s like the filmmaking team needed six more weeks of editing to cut away the flab (Howie talking about his childhood rabbits?!), to reorganize the order of the arcs and answer some basic questions that are teased.

Backstreet Boys Teen Beat Quiz Question #3
Youre on a date with A.J. and notice that he doesnt drink. Do you:
A) Ask him if hes a recovering alcoholic and how he got sober?
B) Ask him if Kevin quit the band because of his drinking?
C) Meet his wife and find out her perspective?
D) Stay quiet and hope it comes out later?

The answer is probably embedded in both the incredible access the filmmakers achieved and the inevitable limitations that must be accepted when the artist is an executive producer (i.e., he paid to have the film made). Things are alluded to, but not stated clearly. Maybe because the band members couldn’t go any further. It’s hard to put your life on film. And when your childhood has happened in the public eye, weird things can happen to your sense of selfhood. (Hello, Michael Jackson plastic surgery obsession.)

But really, when an art form owes a lot to barbershop quartet and mime (the hip-hop dance flourishes notwithstanding), there are a lot of obstacles to likability here for anyone who’s not 13 years old. The fact that the film shows us young artists trying to remake themselves in an emotionally compelling way is an achievement. Because in the end, ShowEm What Youre Made Of helps us to understand and care about these Boys-II-Men. After seeing it, I can’t now dismiss them as artists, nor even boy bands as an art form. And that says a lot.

Kerthy Fix directed and produced the feature documentaries, Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields and Who Took the Bomp: Le Tigre On Tour. She works in television and documentary as a director and producer. In addition, Kerthy has a script in development about the first famous transsexual, Christine Jorgensen, called The Most Famous Woman in the World and is currently making a feature doc about composer Sxip Shirey.