Obsessing over a boy band is a rite of passage for any little girl. Just as pre-teens today obsess over One Direction, I obsessed over the Backstreet Boys. I don’t think I would have been so emotionally devastated if one of the members left though, and I definitely wouldn’t have been climbing on their tour bus (but I was around 9, so it’s safe to say my parents would not allow me near a band’s tour bus), but nevertheless I loved them and I imagined every song they sang was sung just for me. Being the ’90s I didn’t have access to the internet as I do today, and I never knew much about the band beyond pretty faces, good dance moves and great songs. That’s all I needed to know at 9 years old. As I grew older my music tastes changed drastically, I forgot all about my love for the Backstreet Boys and never did learn much about them in the way I know about other bands now. And then, I see that the documentary that took two years to make Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of was playing at the cinema, and I thought that why the hell not? I could see how they started, learn about their career, see what they are getting up to now and learn that they actually made it big in Europe long before their fame spread to the U.S.
The documentary starts off with AJ asking “what do you do when you’re a full-grown man in a boy band”, and we see what full-grown men do when in a boy band as we them start to really take control of this band they have been a part for 20 years. Obviously, in the beginning they were manufactured. I didn’t realise though that Backstreet Boys was born because one rich dude realised boy bands made money and wanted in on it. And that’s what Lou Pearlman did. He found some boys that looked good, could sing and dance and created a a boy band. The boys speak of Lou rather fondly at first – though the mention of them hanging out in his arcade room and occasionally watching his porn just didn’t sit right with me, considering Nick was only 11 or 12 at the time – they begin to turn on him though when you discover Lou took both a managers fee and a cut of the profits claiming to be the sixth member, screwing them all out of a lot of money. The boys eventually sued Lou, and he remains in gaol to this day for running a ponzi scheme.
Filmed over two years we are taken to the home towns of each member where we hear a little bit about their lives before Backstreet Boys, to get a sense of where they came from and even see the members visit old teachers and those who saw the potential in each of them long before Lou. The crux of the documentary however, is the recording and writing process of their 2013 album In a World Like This. At the beginning of the film Nick states “in the beginning, it was manufactured. There’s no doubt about it. But it’s like Pinocchio. He was manufactured, but he turned into a real boy”, no one can deny the fact they were manufactured, but unlike most boy bands they grew into something more. Just as Nick aptly says with his Pinocchio analogy, they became a real band. And you really get the sense that they are a real band when you see them work together writing the new album. It wasn’t until Black & Blue where the boys really started to get into writing their own songs, as they began to break away from this manufactured boy band facade. When you’re in a boy band you are told what to sing and when to sing it, what to wear, how to dance, basically everything. And now that Backstreet Boys are men in their 30’s and 40’s, they aren’t willing to take direction with no voice of their own. And that is what you do when you’re a full-grown man in a boy band. You take control. You make the band you’re own and strive as more than just a boy band from the ’90s.
It’s impossible to agree on everything 100% of the time when you are in a band, and Backstreet Boys are no different. This is abundantly clear when choosing the songs for the new album, and Brian and Nick disagree on a song, which quickly erupts into Nick yelling at Brian to “shut the fuck up” and “I’m not scared of you anymore”. I’m not really sure what Nick is referring to here, but it gets passed over in the film, and I guess we’re not allowed to know why Nick was ever afraid of Brian. Not only are we privy to present tension between band mates, but we learn about the impact AJ’s drug and alcohol had on the band, and himself, discover the Howie was adamant he have more leads, and we see the tension and pressure the boys put on themselves, especially with Brian. Brian was diagnosed with tension dysphonia where the muscles around the vocal chords stop the vocal chords from doing what they should. You see Brian in therapy trying to deal with the problem, and seeing and hearing him struggle with what used to come so easily for him, was pretty hard to watch. You just can’t help but feel bad for him. Here they are ready to make this come back and Brian wants to be perfect and is just continuously putting pressure on himself to be the very best. It’s not the first time Brian had to deal with health issues. Back in 1998 he had open heart surgery, but the touring and TV appearances didn’t stop. He went from the operating table to the stage with no break. That’s what it’s like when you have no say in the running of a band.
The film lightly touches on rival boy band ‘N Sync, another creation Lou Pearlman creation, made to give the band a rival, keep the excitement of Backstreet Boys alive, while giving little girls everywhere a new band to obsess over and Lou more ways to make money. ‘N Sync were basically the backup band. When Backstreet Boys couldn’t make it, ‘N Sync would step in. Just another betrayal by Lou, and a subject that probably should have been discussed more in the film.
Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of provides a look into the life of Backstreet Boys both past and present to really see what life in a boy band is like, and how to continue making music 20 years later, remain relevant and be more than just a boy band. We learn a little bit about each member’s life, learn what it was like to all of a sudden be living this rock star life, discover what Backstreet Boys means to them, see how they plan to keep the band going and realise that while they may have been in a boy band they were still young men full of hormones, which is strikingly evident when we hear that Kevin learned to say “can you give me a blow job?” in German.