Nick Carter is freaking out. Around a conference table with the other adult members of the Backstreet Boys, he is out of his chair, stabbing a finger in the direction of Brian Littrell, yelling coarsely and without self-control: "You shut the fuck up, you shut the fuck up, I swear to god. Don't talk to me that way." The other people at the table try to calm him down but he is resolute in his anger.
This is one of many revealing scenes in the forthcoming Backstreet Boys documentary, Show 'Em What You're Made Of, and it only captures two or three minutes of the complex and complicated relationships that spawned from the boy band's twenty-plus years in the music business together. The five men, whose mean age in 2015 is 39, are brainstorming which songs deserved to go on their ninth album, and tensions are high. Preparations for a lengthy world tour have been strained, and there is concern that on this latest go-round that they won't even make it past the starting line.
Carter spirals into mania, yelling things like, "Don't be a fucking dick like everyone knows you are." Kevin Richardson, sitting patiently next to him, attempts to intervene. "How about we all act like men?" he asks. Carter stands back and rages further at Littrell, bringing up his co-vocalist's singing problems. But Richardson's face hardly changes: "How about speaking from a place of love and not a place of anger?"
When Littrell finally reacts to Carter, it's to say, "You take the good with the bad, dog. We're a group."
Show 'Em What You're Made Of is not, by any stretch, the first pop documentary to show the troubling downsides of pop stardom. In Katy Perry's Part of Me, the viewer watches as Perry breaks down in a makeup chair when her husband files for divorce while she's on a world tour. Even douche prince Justin Bieber has an emotional moment in Never Say Never after his vocal chords fail him. But unlike the glitzy performance-driven PR projects before it, Show 'Em What You're Made Of asks several uncomfortable questions about fame, the rapidly evolving pop machine, and the complicated nature of adult male friendships.
For the Backstreet Boys, whose star has been dimming for a few years, there is little left to gloss over; instead, there is an active chipping away at the lacquer. What exactly happens to you when your whole life goes out of style? Do you know yourself well enough to move forward? What business does an adult man have being in a boy band? Unlike other documentaries that push stars into greater notoriety through a fantastical, glossed portrayal of reality—like Perry's and Bieber's—this one deals with the actual consequences of years working under that illusion.
In a scene where the group goes hiking in the Kentucky hills near Kevin Richardson's hometown, 37-year-old A.J. McClean lingers behind: "This is really shitty for my knees."
The documentary was filmed around the time the Backstreet Boys made their most recent album and as they prepared for a big tour. While watching creaky men in their late thirties and early forties attempt complicated dance routines and write non-cliché pop hits together in an aerated London townhouse should be entertaining for anyone, the real appeal comes from a decently submerged storyline. In Show 'Em What You're Made Of, the five men travel around in a white passenger van on planned visits to each other's childhood hometowns. This is where repressed male emotion is shoved aggressively into frame.
In the valley of a hill in Lexington, Kentucky, Richardson cries while his four friends gather around him. His father had died of cancer in a cabin not far from where they were standing, just before the singer was given the chance to join the Backstreet Boys. The scene occurs not even twenty minutes into the documentary and interspersed with Richardson's tearful confession are photos of him with his father, as well as a few of him working at Disney World in Orlando. The shot is starkly intimate because it shows how men who are supposed to be close friends—"brothers"—react to Richardson baring unfiltered emotion. Howie Dorough hugs him mid-story; Brian Littrell cries himself. Nick Carter, in sweats, looks distant and uncomfortable. A.J. McClean is solid and silent. Their varying levels of resistance to connectivity are palpable.
Richardson is now 43 and the most mature of the group. In the film, there is meaningful exposure to unforgiving realities, and Richardson reacts most often with a level head, recognizing that the documentary could be a bookend to the boy band's legacy. In the trips the group takes to their old schools, community centers, former homes, and places of significance in their lives, the viewer gets a sense of Christmas Carol-esque repentance and nostalgia. These places are worth revisiting together in an effort to better understand each other, but to watch it feels voyeuristic and morose and pointing toward some sort of end for the group. In one scene, they end up at Lou Pearlman's abandoned mansion in Florida.
Pearlman, the billionaire manager who took the Backstreet Boys on as a project in 1993, is in jail now, serving a 25-year sentence for running one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in American history. According to their interviews, Pearlman gave them everything. "The first time I've ever seen two women kissing each other was on one of Lou's videotapes," Dorough admits after explaining the unlimited access the boys had to anything they dreamed of when they first started out.
In the scene at Pearlman's lemon-yellow mansion, Carter, panicky like a school boy dared to go into a haunted house, refuses to trespass. Richardson, Dorough, and Littrell all enter to find it empty and stripped to wood beams in some rooms. To imagine that only ten or fifteen years earlier, the up and coming Backstreet Boys were having birthday parties, album release parties, and early bonding moments there together—porn included—is very creepy indeed.
Both Carter and McClean have had battles with addiction, and both of them have thanked Kevin Richardson, the group's reasoned father figure, for helping them achieve sobriety. But while McClean appears to have come away with many likable qualities: self-awareness, perspective, and a warm sense of humor, Carter, throughout the whole documentary, seems on edge, standoffish, and aggressive, which reveals itself massively during his petulant breakdown at Brian Littrell.
"I'm not afraid of you anymore." Carter's baggage comes from being in the shadow of someone older than him in an industry he could barely understand. He describes Littrell as his brother in another scene in the movie, and their fight, though tainted with likely unresolved tensions, is a familiar fight between two family members. He seems somewhat unhinged and the scene is difficult to watch but it's the whole documentary's telling lynchpin.
The appeal of Show 'Em What You're Made Of is multileveled. I took interest because the Backstreet Boys were one of my girlhood fascinations and my first ever concert. For nonfans, it's a slightly-crafted, voyeuristic look at the longterm effects of puppeted fame. But most of all, it's a peek inside the hard-to-unpack mystery of adult male friendship and all that it entails. Addiction, infighting, marriage, children: how do these brotherly bonds prevail in the face of life's disruptions?
One leg up in sweats and a T-shirt, A.J. McClean sits in the living room of his house. "We were gods, in a twisted way."
[Image courtesy of Gravitas Ventures]