Backstreet Boys Documentary: Show ’em what you’re made of

Introduction Charly Suggett
Interview Claire Lomax

It would appear that Backstreet may be back, by the way.

Backstreet Boys: Show’em What You’re Made Of – a music documentary about the 1990s band who have sold 130 Million albums worldwide, whose North American NKOTBSB tour in 2011 sold 700,000 tickets, and who received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013 – is out this month much to the delight of their 13 million social media fans.

Much of my own knowledge and fan girl pleasures were passed down to me by my sister and her bedroom wall but I shall never forget the extremely wide legged pants, the floppy hair, the full denim looks and the violent air humping we are reminded of from past video footage of the boys in their youth and prime.

As manufactured as their music and lifestyles may have been in their hay day, the constant stream of Backstreet Boys hits dispersed throughout the film serves as a strong reminder of the absolute ‘tunes’ that the band had.

“We had some great pop songs and we sang the s**t out of them!”

The film serves to humanise the once tweaked to perfection poster boys of the 90’s and shows them in their more adolescent and in their wiser skins (although they still argue like teenagers at times) and we’re invited to join the band while they each revisit their childhood towns. Some journeys are more solemn than others but we still see how they blossomed from high school teachers’ pet to Backstreet Boy, even from a Disneyland Mutant Ninja Turtle to a Backstreet Boy. Each journey may have differed but they all ended up together and ready to take on the world, one continent at a time.

The 110 minutes, fascinating for its musical nostalgia but also for its insight into the story of five young men, will be screened in cinemas from February 26 at 7pm and is certificated 15. It will be interesting to see how many people under the age of 30 will be amongst an audience coming to relive their teenage years, but there’s a story here for both fans and non-fans interested in challenging preconceptions.

The Backstreet Boys documentary is directed by Stephen Kijak, director of exemplary music films, “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” and “Stones in Exile” on the Rolling Stones. In his own words, Kijak took some convincing to remove the heavy music-snob chip from his shoulder. But after some arm twisting and an hour-long conversation with the band themselves, he cued up the video to “I Want It That Way” and started to think it all through and here we are. We spoke to Stephen about the Backstreet Boys, and the making of the movie.



FLUX: You are famous for music documentaries. Is there a musician you would love to make a film about?

Stephen Kijak: I’m known for music documentaries. I’d hardly say I’m famous for them. As for a musician I’d love to make a film about…I’m actually currently making a film about the band X Japan and their incredible leader, the songwriter, classical pianist, and drummer: Yoshiki. I’ve never encountered anyone quite like him in music, or in life for that matter – I might have to quit music films after this one. The story is so unreal, I don’t know where else I could go after this.

FLUX: Boy bands are a fascinating subject matter from the Beatles to One Direction now. What do you think makes them so irresistible to each new set of fans?

Stephen Kijak: It’s purely hormonal. They get in at just the right time in their fan’s lives and trigger real, primal stuff – it’s romantic, it’s sexual, and if they have great voices and solid pop tunes, it’s unstoppable. We even saw it with The Walker Brothers in 1965, before Scott Walker went solo and avant-garde. It was non-stop screams.

FLUX: Where did the idea for the Backstreet Boys film first come from? It seems quite different subject matter from your other films. How did you first meet the band?

Stephen Kijak: I was approached to do it, I didn’t initiate this film. The fact that it was not the obvious choice for me eventually became the hook that got me into it. I was reminded of an anecdote from John Cassavetes when he was writing the film “Faces”, something to the effect that the businessmen characters in the film were the sort of people who repulsed him in life and by working with them in a fictional space, he was able to develop an enormous amount of empathy for something he once did not understand. That was on my mind during the early days of getting into it. And then you do eventually meet the guys and they’re great, very likable and easy to film!

FLUX: Did you come across any subjects that were off limits in the documentary?

Stephen Kijak: Nothing was off limits really – when you get someone to talk about drinking their own vomit, I mean, the line has been crossed. You have to understand, they initiated the film, they wanted to open up about stuff. This wasn’t me playing detective and looking for dirty stories about Lou Pearlman – that’s a different film.

FLUX: Have you had any responses from fans of the boys back in the day? Do they approve?

Stephen Kijak: The response from the fans has been overwhelming. We had one fan who watched it 7 times in a row in a two day span. In many ways, this is for them. I’m not a BSB fan, I had a job to do, and when I saw how much the fans meant to the band, they really are the lifeblood of this band, you knew this film had to work on that level first or it would be a failure.

FLUX: How do you decide how to get under the skin of a subject – from this film, or your Scott Walker documentary? Do you see the films as entertainment or expose?

Stephen Kijak: It can be both. I don’t tend to trade in the Behind-the-Music mode of music films. The tactic is basically to get into sympathy with your subject and let what you find there lead you. It all depends on the initial thesis and point of view. If we were tasked to “expose” the Backstreet Boys, we would have done that, but that wasn’t the remit. We wanted to start from an intimate, almost corny place – with those hometown trips – and then to follow the emotional story that was unfolding. That’s where we found the depth, the thematic pulse of the film.

FLUX: What’s the most interesting thing you found out about the Backstreet Boys that is not in the film (that you can tell us!)?

Stephen Kijak: That their video for their 2005 single “Just Want You To Know” is one of the most clever pieces of post-modern music video making ever. It’s a brilliant homage to the short documentary “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” So smart and funny. We really tried to find a place for it in the film but it never made it.

FLUX: The Backstreet Boys famously do not consider themselves a boy band, even though they are also famous for being the biggest boy band in history. Is there anything you found that does distinguish them from other boy bands?

Stephen Kijak: From the get-go they thought of themselves as a vocal harmony group. The “boy band” tag was a way to make sense of them in the “marketplace”, as you learn in the film, the boy band thing was blowing up in Germany so they sent them there and because they can actually sing, they blew everyone else away. That’s the distinguishing factor: their vocal harmonies. They can sing circles around pretty much anyone.

FLUX: What were you doing when the Backstreet Boys were at their height? On what level were they on your radar then?

Stephen Kijak: I was living in New York City, starting to make films, and listening to PJ Harvey, Radiohead, lots of obscure electronic music, Scott Walker obviously. BSB was the cultural enemy at the time. But then I remember hearing “I Want It That Way” and it floors you. It was a secret guilty pleasure. Now you realize, it’s just pleasure! It’s a perfect pop song.

FLUX: Has making the film made you view boy bands/the Backstreet Boys any differently than you did before?

Stephen Kijak: Of course- the revelation about their vocal abilities, their work ethic, especially what they were put through in the early days, the grinding it out on the road playing free shows in high schools all across the country, the dedication to a devoted fanbase, and to a particular brand of pop craft, it’s deeply impressive. I think there was an urge to actually counter the accepted critical/cultural backlash against them – we could have gone in with a bit more distance, snark, pushed back against them a bit more, but I like what happened with the film. It actually feels true to who they are. I can’t speak to any other boy band, but it was a window into a world I had never considered paying attention to before and we hope the non-fan joins us and re-evaluates their position.

FLUX: Are you working on any other projects that are coming up?

Stephen Kijak: Just the X Japan film for my good friend, producer John Battsek & Passion Pictures. We should have that one ready in about a year.

The Backstreet Boys documentary BACKSTREET BOYS: SHOW’EM WHAT YOU’RE MADE OF is in cinemas nationwide on 26 February followed by a special performance by the band broadcast live by satellite


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