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In 2013, when the Backstreet Boys set out to make their first album since Kevin Richardson’s return (and launch their 20th anniversary tour), they headed London to record for three weeks. Leaving their families and girlfriends behind, they found a house to stay in and began their latest creative venture. And then that turned into something else entirely.
“The five of us were in L.A. before we started the most recent record,” A.J. McLean said. “We were sitting in Kevin’s living room, we were listening to The Beatles’ White Album and all kinds of music, trying to be inspired and figure out what the new direction was going to be for the album. And Nick kind of brought up the idea of, ‘What if we kind of guerrilla-style film the making of the album?'”
But once they arrived in London, they found out that Brian Littrell, widely regarded as the group’s lead vocalist, had something to tell them: He was dealing with muscle tension dysphonia around his vocal chords, which affected his voice heavily on some days and not so much on others.
“It was the first time that we first talked to Brian about what was going on with his voice and everything just kind of came into fruition about, ‘Maybe this can be more than just about the making of the record,'” McLean said. And with that, the idea for their upcoming documentary, Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of, was born.
But if they were going to make a documentary, the Backstreet Boys knew that they wanted to to separate themselves from the “movie concert” documentaries of late—think Katy Perry or One Direction. Instead, the group set out to make something more like Searching for Sugar Man or Some Kind of Monster, what McLean described as “a true music documentary talking about more than just the live performance, like the real nuts and bolts of those particular groups.” And thus the film became about two things: Brian’s vocal struggle and Lou Pearlman, the man who put them together as a band and was later discovered to be running one of the largest Ponzi schemes in American history.
The film, which was made over the course of nearly two years, show band in their London recording studio, but they’ll also watch as each of the five members leads a visit to their hometown, including a stop at Pearlman’s old home.
“I’m really excited for [fans] to see [our backstories],” McLean said. “Obviously we’ve all known where we came from and we’ve all met our families, but to see where Nick grew up and Howie got his scars, to meet my acting teacher, to go to Kevin’s campgrounds where his dad passed away, and all this stuff—it was just awesome to really see where each of us truly came from and for our fans to see that.”
The documentary also sheds some light on the group’s rise to fame and the many hours the members have spent perfecting their sound and their brand. “I really feel like a lot of people that may be curious that aren’t fans will become fans because they’ll see us in a different light and see us not just as this boy band that was rushed into fame, because it never really happened that way,” McLean said. “We really weren’t rushed into fame. We had a lot of ups and downs before we even got signed.”
With archival footage the bandmates found on old VHS tapes, the documentary encompasses the entire journey of the group, including everything from their young days on the road with groupies to what it’s like to be a grown man in a boy band. “One thing that we all agreed upon as a group was that we didn’t want it to be candy-coated,” McLean said. “The whole point of filming a documentary is to be raw and to be real and to be in the moment, forget the cameras are on and just be yourself. And if a fight ensues or you start talking about hooking up with groupies or you start talking about drugs and alcohol or sex or whatever, that’s real. That’s what our lives consisted of. That’s what we lived through.”
The film ends with a glimpse of the Backstreet Boys back onstage for the In A World Like This Tour. “I think fans will walk away falling in love with us all over again,” McLean said. “I hope that people that aren’t fans become fans. And I really hope that the industry looks at us a little differently and maybe [we] get even more respect. We really are a family. We really are dedicated. We’re passionate about our career, we love what we do, we love our fans, and like we said at our [Hollywood Walk of Fame] star inauguration, thanks for 20 years and we got 20 more.”
Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of is released in limited theaters, on VOD, and on iTunes Friday, Jan. 30.