From 1999 until around 2002, the Backstreet Boys were the biggest band in the world. Under the guidance of Florida boy band manufacturer Lou Pearlman, five fresh-faced and talented boys from lower- to middle-class homes—A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, Kevin Richardson, Brian Littrell, and Nick Carter—conquered the pop charts and sold 130 million albums worldwide. They drew screaming crowds massive enough to paralyze Times Square; they sold out stadiums across the planet; they lived out their wildest teenage dreams.
Then they grew up.
Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of, the Backstreet Boys’ documentary in theaters today, does what you’d expect it to: It relives the height of the guys’ fame, reveling in old footage of screaming girls, frosted tips, and matching outfits. But it also forces its subjects, five men in their late thirties and early forties putting together a comeback album and 20th anniversary tour, to face their careers’ biggest unspoken issues. Are grown men in boy bands a joke? Is the novelty of nostalgia the only claim to relevance they have left? Can five old friends put twenty years’ worth of baggage and bullshit behind them?
“Shut the fuck up. Don’t talk to me that way,” Littrell growls at Carter during a meeting with producers in the film, his voice rising closer to a shout with every word. “Don’t be a fucking dick, like everyone knows you are. DON’T BE A DICK!”
Carter, who was only fourteen when Pearlman recruited him to the band, is screaming “shut the fuck up” right back at Littrell. As kids, the two were closer to each other than to anyone else in the group. But right now, Carter is so angry he can barely speak. “I’m not afraid of you anymore,” he sputters.
In another scene, McLean, the band’s requisite “bad boy,” remembers struggling with addiction during the band’s heyday, and blowing off a performance in Boston because he was in a “coke coma” in his room. Richardson, the eldest member of the group, almost broke down A.J.’s door in a blind rage. “I’ll never forget him saying ‘You are dead to me,’” McLean says quietly. “That was it.” He checked himself into rehab shortly afterward and Richardson quit the band entirely in 2005.
We hear from the men about the lies Pearlman told them to cheat them out of a chunk of their earnings: He told the boys he had to recoup the million dollars he had invested in the band, he took commissions as manager, and he claimed he was a one-sixth member of the group and entitled to the same pay as each member. “By 1998 we had sold millions of albums, toured nonstop in stadiums and yet our bank accounts…didn’t make sense,” Richardson says. In the years after his own father’s death, Richardson had looked up to Pearlman as a surrogate father. Until the band sued to get rid of the Ponzi schemer once and for all.
We also hear about the betrayal the guys felt after learning about Pearlman’s side projects. “We’re molding them in your image,” Dorough remembers being told about the boys of ’N Sync. “But next thing we knew, if we got tired or didn’t want to do a certain TV show, boom, ’N Sync was right there picking up the pieces. Next thing you knew, Jive Records [to which the Backstreet Boys were signed] had signed ’N Sync. Lou basically created our competition.”
In the film’s final scene, the men are seen hiking through leafy terrain in the hills of rural Kentucky. McLean has been having trouble keeping up with his bandmates. “This is really shitty for my knees,” he huffs (he’s only 37). They take turns hoisting each other up a hill, miraculously keeping their jeans and fedoras dirt-free. They look thrilled. “We did it,” McLean says.
McLean hopped on the phone with The Daily Beast to discuss the documentary’s origins, bitterness over never winning a Grammy, and the struggle to shed their boy band image and be taken seriously as singers.
Hey A.J.! Where are you calling from?
I am actually sitting on my front porch, I had to walk out of my house because my daughter’s watching daddy’s music videos. I thought that might be weird to have on in the background.
She watches your music videos?
All day, every day. She’s almost two-and-a-half and it’s either watching daddy’s videos or singing “Let It Go.” I’m kind of over both of them. Nick [Carter] and his wife were both here last night, hanging out with me and my wife. My daughter’s got Nick’s name down and she’s got Howie’s name down, so I’m trying to get her to learn all the fellas’ names.
That’s adorable. So, I hear the band is working on a new record again.
Yeah, though we’re still in talks about what the concept is and what direction it’s gonna take. We’re also trying to figure out what producers we’re gonna work with; I know there’s been talks of us reaching out to Ryan Tedder, possibly Pharrell, or Max Martin and Dr. Luke. We’re actually still off until the second or third week of April, when we go on tour to finish the 20th anniversary tour. Between now and then we’re gonna hopefully try to hone in on a direction, probably start the writing process mid-March, and then hopefully finish recording over the summertime. And then we’re off to the races again. It’ll be album no. 10 and another tour.
How did the idea come up for filming a documentary at this point in your careers?
You know, it’s really interesting how this whole thing kind of came into fruition. A little over two years ago, the five of us were at Kevin’s house, just hanging out, talking about concepts for the In a World Like This CD. We were listening to the Beatles’ White Album, Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, and Prince, kind of just trying to get inspired and figure out what the direction was gonna be.
Nick had brought up the idea of us flying out to London and pulling an MTV Real World, living in the same house together and reconnecting and bonding again, since Kevin had just recently returned to the band. While we were at Kevin’s, Nick was like, “You know… we’ve always talked about filming the making of an album.” That was the initial idea. Once we got with Pulse, the production company, it kind of turned into a full-fledged documentary—making it about not just the album process, but about the past twenty-plus years that we’ve been together: getting our star on the Walk of Fame, taking trips back to our childhood homes, the stuff about Lou.
Did the five of you try reaching out to Lou to appear on-camera?
Pulse had actually reached out to the jail where Lou was, asking for the five of us to go there, visit him on-camera and basically sit down in the room with him and ask him, “Why?” Which would have been extremely powerful. But the warden changed his mind and said he’d only allow one of us to talk to him. And if it wasn’t all five of us, then it’s not really worth it. I think what we ended up having in the film is just enough, so it’s not focusing solely on that, even though it’s a really big part of the last twenty years.
One of the film’s most poignant moments comes when the five of you wander through Lou’s abandoned mansion in Florida. You talk about feeling betrayed by him and desperately wanting to ask him why he did what he did—but it doesn’t seem like you regret working with him.
No, not at all. Never bite the hand that fed you, you know? I can’t speak on behalf of all of us; I think some of the guys may have some regrets and some resentment, which is completely understandable. But I personally don’t. I feel like that’s a waste of my energy and my emotion. I think everything happened the way that it was meant to happen, there are no mistakes in the world.
But I do think we’re still trying to understand. It’s like [to Pearlman,] “You could have had the world with us, but you got greedy and took advantage of something that you created from the ground up. You should have been able to sit back and be proud, cherish it, embrace it, and run with it until the wheels fall off. Instead, you made the wheels fall off way too soon.” But, again, I have no regrets. I think we’ve become better artists, better men, better people because of all the things we’ve had to go through.
It’s mind-blowing to look back and see just how young you all were when you became the center of this global, multi-million dollar business. Does seeing the documentary make you feel protective for your younger self?
You know, not really. It’s kind of humbling to look at ourselves and reminisce, and for a brief moment in time, recapture our youth. I think we’ve all aged pretty well, all things considered. [laughs] I try to live the healthiest lifestyle I’ve ever lived and I want to be a good representation as a father for my little girl. I’m in the gym six days a week, I’m doing the Paleo diet, I’m really just trying to live a happy, healthy lifestyle.
Obviously, all of us went through highs and lows—some of us worse than others—but it’s really humbling to kind of look back and go, “Maaan, I remember that, holy shit! That’s what we did? Wow.” I mean, looking at the wardrobe or the hairstyles or the facial hair and you’re like, “What the hell was I thinking?” But you know that was what was in then, and it’s funny how a lot of what was in then is back in now.
You definitely had the most distinct style of the group, with the sunglasses and the chameleon hair. Do you have any old favorite looks?
I get a lot of shit—especially from my wife—for my little Flock of Seagulls hair extensions, back from when we did the Black and Blue around-the –world-in-100-hours tour. But I think my top two favorites would have been the corn rows and the bleach blond hair with a little bit of my roots showing. I went through every single color, including tennis ball green, leopard print—I did it all.
But there were definitely a lot of clothing don’ts that I look back on now and I totally regret. Like the oversized, super-baggy, hip-hop wannabe shit that I was doing. Like, I was P. Diddy Jr. for a while with all my bling and stuff, I don’t know what I was thinking. But that comes with living in the moment of being a pop star.
The documentary also raises another interesting question: Whether the band wants to keep riding the nostalgia wave or reinvent yourselves as more serious musicians. Which are you leaning toward?
That’s the thing—we actually had a long conversation the other day, all five of us. We were in a meeting and asking ourselves, “Do we wanna continue to live off the nostalgia? Or do we really want to be known as singers?” There’s a real huge difference. People will always call us a boy band, and for years we hated it. Now we obviously are very humbled by it and accept it because that’s we are. We’re still boys, we’re still young at heart, we’re still having fun and we still have a passion for this.
But we’re definitely leading toward being known as singers. I think there was a little bit of bitterness for years over being nominated for multiple Grammys but never winning one. But I always tell the guys, you know, look at Leo, look at Johnny Depp, look at some of the best actors in the universe that get nominated almost every season and they still haven’t won. Leo is past 40 and still hasn’t won, Johnny is 50-something, still hasn’t won. Martin Scorsese finally won for The Departed years ago. Our time will come too.
Do you think the film will change audiences' perception of the Backstreet Boys?
When people came to the 20th anniversary shows, they may have come in thinking, “Oh, this is gonna be a nostalgic thing.” But I think people left going, “Wow, these guys still got it. They got it even better now. They still look good, they sound great. They’re dancing still, they’re having fun.” People leave our show happy. Now, especially after seeing the film, I think people are gonna have a different respect for us.
What else is a priority for the band going forward?
On this most recent record, we did it strictly independent. We have our own label, we have no marketing. We put our own personal dime into this record and into the promotion. We still physically go into every radio station to promote the singles and, with our management and our publicist, we did as much TV as we could. And the record still came in the top 5. So something is still working. I’m really anxious to see what happens after the film.
Brian also brought up a really interesting point to us the other day—not that it’s a desperation to stay relevant, because we are still relevant, but to be cool. I think little things like being at the end of This is the End was cool. People did not see that coming and it kind of changes things. It puts us in a totally different light. I think after people see this film that cool factor will absolutely be there. They’ll hopefully gain a newfound respect for us.