When all of the original members of the Backstreet Boys decided to get together and celebrate their 20th anniversary with an album and tour, they also decided to document it all, the result of which is Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of. Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean and Kevin Richardson are more than just a band. They’re friends and family, having gone through hell and back with each other, while always having each other’s backs, and some of the ups and downs are documented for all to see.
At the documentary’s press day, the guys talked about how far they’ve come in 20 years, what they would say to other boy bands that are looking to have a long career, the hardest memories they had to revisit, the most moving and surprising things they learned about each other, the things in the movie that made them cringe, what it was like to get back into the recording studio together, being involved in the editing process, and how their wives and family reacted to the film.
BRIAN LITTRELL: Well, the story wouldn’t be there, if we’d made it 20 years ago. At the same time, you have to live and learn, you have to grow, you have to go from little boys to men. In the world that we live in, with social media, everything has changed in the last five, six and ten years. But we wouldn’t be the people that we are today, if it weren’t for all of the crap and the great times and the emotion that you see. We’ve been on a roller coaster for the past 20 years, but I don’t think we would change any of it. It’s part of our history, it’s part of our livelihoods, and it’s part of us, as individuals and as a group. Hopefully, it keeps getting better.
NICK CARTER: It’s also a part of those fans’ lives, as well. We share that together. That’s what’s relevant. They’ve seen our lives from a surface level, in a lot of ways, on TV and in music videos. Now they get a chance to really see behind the scenes, with all of those years packed into one film.
You guys paved the way for the boy bands that have come after you, but they rarely last as long as you guys have. So, what would be your advice to those bands?
AJ McLEAN: Just to really stay on your own path. We definitely treaded water, as much as we possibly could. We definitely stuck true to ourselves. We stayed on our own path. We never swayed left or right. We never really went too far outside of our comfort zone because there was something that worked. There was a true Backstreet Boys sound, musically and sonically, that worked. If it wasn’t this five, it wouldn’t work. We’re friends. We’re family. We’ve been through highs and lows together. This whole journey and this whole film is a real testament to our fans and to one another. Any groups that come and go, or are still here, just stay on your own path, get a good lawyer, and most importantly, have fun. Make sure it’s all about the music first, and be really good to your fans. Stop and take pictures with your fans, even if you’re not in a good mood that day. A little bit goes a long way.
CARTER: It’s not advice, but it’s a warning, in some ways. You have to make sure you stick together because, if you don’t, you don’t get to experience what we are experiencing right now, after 22 years. We made a documentary, and we’re still here. If you don’t stick together and play as a team, it will all go away and you’ll be sitting back wishing you were in this position.
Nick, you went back to your elementary school for the documentary, and you talked about how a lot of your friends then were dead, in jail or addicted. What’s it like to know that you have the other guys in this group, as your friends and supporting you so you didn’t go down that path?
CARTER: It was a miracle that I found these guys, in so many different ways. When I went back with them, it brought all of those memories back to life. If I hadn’t met them, there’s no doubt in my mind that I could have gone down that path and either been in jail, a drug addict, or who knows what else. But in a lot of ways, music and these guys saved me. It sounds cliche, but it’s true.
What was the hardest memory for you guys to have to revisit?
McLEAN: Obviously, the Lou [Pearlman] stuff is still, to this day, a bit of a sensitive subject for some of us. Some of us have made our peace with it, and others may not have yet. You can always forgive, you just can’t really forget. It will always be a part of us. We’re very grateful and thankful for Lou. We wouldn’t be here today, if it wasn’t for Lou. I also think it was going back home and actually digging up some of our old personalities and upbringing, and really seeing each other for who we are and why we tick the way that we tick. We all knew where each of us was born, but we never physically went and felt the emotion from each other. That was toward the end of making this documentary. Kevin had made the suggestion to go back home, and we went everywhere in five days. It was a lot of emotion, and it was very therapeutic. I think we learned a lot more about each other, that we didn’t know for the last 20+ years. I think it actually made us much stronger, and much more of a band.
CARTER: During that five-day period, it was hard for me to experience and live through these other guys’ experiences and lives. Seeing each one of them cry over a specific story or circumstance that had occurred in their lives affected me and really touched me, in a lot of ways.
What was the most moving or surprising things that you learned about each other, on your hometown visits?
McLEAN: I really thoroughly enjoyed hearing everyone’s stories. We had already met Brian’s chorus teacher, years and years ago, but we got to see that come full circle. And how the film starts and ends is just a great circle of our entire life. It starts in this beautiful forest and it’s freezing out, and the five of us are hiking, with my slow ass hanging behind, and then, we end at the top of this beautiful mountain. With each of us helping each other climb these rocks, we got to the top. That’s just a really powerful metaphor.
LITTRELL: One of the things that pops out for me was the rabbit story from Howie. I loved hearing him talking about his dad. I’ve got through that with my cousin, Kevin, because he lost his dad. That’s a very emotional part of the film, as well. There’s the relationships that AJ had with his teachers at school because he didn’t have a dad, growing up. He was surrounded by a bunch of these lovely ladies who nurtured him, cared for him and saw the best in him. There’s Nick playing outside. That’s what me and Kevin did, as kids. We’d play outside, across the street. And we got to see the house where he grew up, and hearing him talk about his parents, in and out, all the time. It’s an emotional roller coaster, but it paints us and normal human beings, even though we’re “pop stars,” or whatever you want to call it. We had those special moments that make us who we are.
KEVIN RICHARDSON: We wanted to be honest. We wanted to be uncensored. At the same time, when we’re telling these stories, there were a lot of things that didn’t make the film. That was hard. I think the first edit was over three hours long. There are 20+ years of stories to tell, and five different versions of that story, and you have to weave it all together without leaving out important moments. Different moments were important to each one of us. So, (director) Stephen [Kijak] had quite a job, to get it all into a format that you could watch in one sitting, and still make it compelling and interesting. One of the issues that I was worried about was when I do the German translation of a certain phrase, that I was taught by a girl that I was dating, at the time. The way that I was raised in Kentucky by my parents, I don’t ever want to be vulgar. But we were telling stories about when we were young men, coming up. You don’t want to cross that line too much. When I saw that, I was like, “I don’t want my son to see this!”
HOWIE DOROUGH: I had a line, too. A couple of my family members watched it and said, “That line where you said you were at Lou’s house when you saw your first porn,” I don’t know if your mom would be cool with that. Kevin and I were both dealing with the thought of, “Do we want to put it out there or not?” But with the direction from the people around us, we wanted to be honest and real. These were things that we were going through, growing up in those early days. That’s what we wanted our fans to take away from this, if anything. We’re normal guys, and porn is what we do on the weekends.
LITTRELL: I was running from my voice issues. I didn’t want it to be known. I thought if I could handle it, swallow it and protect it, we wouldn’t have to talk about it. When you’re trying to make a record and you can’t sing, it sucks because that’s my job. As everybody knows, I’ve had a little bit of weight on my shoulders, in the past 22 years, that we all have done. I get choked up talking about it, but it’s an important part of who I am and what I was going through. If you had talked to me four or five months ago, I wasn’t able to talk and it was scary. I was thinking about hanging it up. I was going to take my break, like Kevin did. But, it became an important part. I wanted to stifle it. I thought that if I didn’t tell anybody, nobody would ask, but it just came out. I’m glad it did. I feel better about it. I’m getting stronger, each and every day. Not that it should have been on the cutting room floor, but it’s very hard to watch. I get choked up.
How’s your voice now?
LITTRELL: It’s okay. It’s better.
RICHARDSON: This idea of the film started off as filming ourselves with our phones and our own hand-held recorders, making this 20th anniversary album and tour. And then, our management took us to Pulse Media out of the U.K., and we got Stephen on board, and we all sat down and said, “We don’t want this to be a VH1 Behind the Music. We already did that. We don’t want this to be a fluff promotional piece.” We have a lot of stories to tell. We’ve lived an extraordinary life. The five of us have worked as a team and made our dreams come true. We just trusted and were honest, and we let the camera roll, during the whole process.
McLEAN: It was the perfect way for us to reconnect and re-bond. Kevin had just come back. Nick made the suggestion of going somewhere outside of our elements, where there were no distractions, no wives, no kids, and no nothing. It was just us five, very a la The Real World, living in a house together, making breakfast with each other, staying up late and talking about music, and just really reconnecting. It’s now spurred this new mantra, hopefully for making the next record. We’ve already talked about possibly a different destination, just to be able to have that time. We were there for almost three weeks, and it was probably the best part of this entire process. It was really just us five, goofing off and having fun. Granted, there were cameras filming, but we blocked that out and were just being boys again.
DOROUGH: Kevin was back in the studio with us, after almost seven years, so the trip was very crucial in reconnecting all of us. We went out there and pushed the envelope. The last time we did something like this, we went to the Bahamas during the making of the Black and Blue record, and we weren’t anywhere in the same mind-space that we are now. When the group first started, I was a little bit more in the forefront. Then, we started with the record label when Jive Records took us on, the sound that I brought to the group was not exactly the Max Martin sound that we were going in, so I had to take a little bit more of a step back. I had my own struggles in my own head, trying to accept my position in the group. We all came from solo backgrounds, initially. And then, we got to a point in our career where our fans wanted to hear us all, individually. The fans thought I just didn’t want to sing, when it was the total opposite. I just wasn’t given a chance to. That’s when we got to talking, four or five records into it, and we decided to make the music that we wanted to make. It was about how we wanted to present ourselves to our fans, and not so much about the label. This last record that we made, we were on our own label, so we definitely had more control and were in the driver’s seat. It’s a record that we’re very proud of and that we just wanted to put out there for our fans. Our fans know that we’re now very comfortable in our skin. We don’t need it to be directed for us. It was definitely a bonding experience, as well.
CARTER: It was great to have Kevin back, honestly. I’m proud of what we did with the four of us, for seven years. We went out there and did two albums and went on the New Kids on the Block tour. We really had to hold the legacy together and keep the Backstreet Boys name going, but it always felt incomplete. So, when he came back and we were finally in the studio together, it just felt like we were home again and that we were the team. And I knew people out there felt that way, as well. There were fans out there that felt it was incomplete. It was great.
What was it like to be involved with the editing process?
McLEAN: It was definitely challenging because you have five different opinions, and the director, and wives and family. It was almost like making an album. For me, I love to play all of our demos for my wife and our friends. Some of the guys want to keep everything tightly wound until the record is done. It’s a good thing and a bad thing to show all these different edits and different versions to friends and family, and get so many more opinions. At the end of the day, it really did boil down to us trying to make the best version of our story in such a condensed amount of time. I think it turned out better than we ever could have dreamed.
CARTER: I actually stopped watching all the edits. There were a million emails, and it can get tedious and monotonous, after awhile. So, I put it all out there, and then I just wanted to let the director and our production team handle it and put together the story. It wasn’t like we made up stuff. It was our life. They knew the storyline, they just had to pain the picture. In the beginning, I watched a couple of edits, but then, after that, I just wanted to be surprised.
LITTRELL: My brother got the link to the film and watched it, and then he texted me and said, “Of course, it was edited for dramatic effect.” I texted him back and was like, “Not really. The things that you see in the film is truly and honestly what happened.” When there were arguments in the boardroom, and cussing and going at each other, that happened. We’re not afraid to say it. When we started, we didn’t have girlfriends. That’s not the life that we live now. With the editing process, there was no jockeying around. It just formed itself, with a great team behind it. It just is what it is.
RICHARDSON: The overall goal was that, if you’ve never, ever heard of the Backstreet Boys and you watch this film, it would be interesting and compelling to you, rather than getting up and walking out after five minutes. We understand that we have a group of amazing fans, all over the world, that keep track of us and follow us. They’re hardcore, and they’ve been with us, from day one. And then, there are a group of fans that are a little more passive. They’ll check in on us every few years, or come out and see us on tour. And then, there are some fans that have completely moved on and forgotten about us. And there are people who never were fans. We wanted it to just stand on its own. The hardest part was just that there was so much material and so much to tell. The most difficult thing was just getting it all down, so that you could watch it in one sitting and understand everything.
CARTER: We made this film for ourselves, but it’s also a way for us to reconnect with those fans that might have moved on, or who are the more passive ones. We love our music and we believe in our music. We feel it’s good music, and we feel that we’re great performers. Life just takes its course and things happen. The film world is a big outlet. It’s a way to really connect with people again, which is one good thing to come from it.
How did your wives and family react to this film?
McLEAN: It’s really funny, I talked to my wife after we did the morning news, and she told me that she was getting teary-eyed. We didn’t really have that much of an emotional interview, but she got all choked up. She’s been around with me for the last six years, almost, and she’s become family, as all of our wives and each of us have become family. She was like, “I know you guys now, and to see the five of you, you’re great men, you’re honest men, you’re very loyal men, who treat your families great and your fans great. To see what you’ve gone through, and that you’ve persevered, is very emotional. You could have easily thrown in the towel, and you didn’t.” I’m looking forward to when my little girl is old enough to understand what’s going on and watches the movie. I’ll be like, “If you really want to see what daddy went through, pop it in,” and I can show her daddy’s life. It’s been a great experience to reminisce and go back in time and dig into that vault, and to rekindle that flame again, get excited again, and be more passionate and goal-oriented now. We have 20 more years in us, easily. As long as we’re having fun, the music is there, and the fans want us to be around, we’re gonna do this as long as we can, with the support of great wives, family and friends. We’ve got a great support group, and us five have been there for each other, through hell and back.
LITTRELL: In the beginning, when we started this, it was all about working together and being that team. And then, with success comes money and stuff and things. We worked really hard together, but at the same time, there was also an inner-developing, as an individual. When you’re a group, you become everything that everybody else is around you. A turning point in our career was to focus on each other, as individuals, which sometimes pushes you apart. But then, at the end of the day, you realize that it’s all about that team. There is money and wives and kids and cars and houses and things and stuff that can take you away from what’s really important. At the end of the day, it comes down to us five. That’s one thing that we’ve always had. The problems and issues don’t matter, if it’s always about the group.
DOROUGH: The movie doesn’t really have a lot of our outside personal lives. We had so much to tell, with just the five of us, that would have been Part 2. But, we all used our families as soundboards. My wife was a very key person in my opinions on the way I viewed it. Besides working with us, at one point, my wife used to be in the film industry. She worked with Jerry Weintraub, as a producer. So, I would go to her, as a soundboard, and say, “What do you think of this take?” There were a lot of times where she would be very honest with me and say, “This movie sucks!” That was right at the very beginning. We went through three, four or five different cuts, before it came to what it is right now, and that was all of our input, going over the different scenes. Where it is now, from where it started, we came so far. They did a great job. It’s hard to get that much information in one hour and 45 minutes.
Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of is now playing in theaters and on VOD.