The Pitch: Like ’em or not, boy bands are part of the zeitgeist, having birthed not only Justin Timberlake, but also the nascent seeds of poptimism that blossomed to produce some of the most relevant music of the modern age. The man responsible for the rise of both the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC is Lou Pearlman, a doughy, excitable Svengali who irrevocably changed pop culture before dying while imprisoned for perpetuating a nefarious Ponzi scheme. He’s an easy villain, both for those who hate the pop-forward direction of music at the turn of the century, and for people who don’t like con artists. However, The Boy Band Con, a new documentary about Pearlman, offers him a shocking amount of grace in its depiction, which refuses to portray him as a straightforward villain even as it hardly sugar-coats his many, many faults.
No Strings Attached: That’s at least partly because the majority of Aaron Kunkel‘s interview subjects are Pearlman creations. *NSYNC’s JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, and Lance Bass (who also produced the film through his Lance Bass Productions) are interviewed, as are Backstreet Boys’ Howie Dorough, O-Town‘s Ashley Parker Angel, Innosense‘s Nikki DeLoach, and in a striking and unhinged turn, the troubled pop singer Aaron Carter. Aside from Carter, they’re all quick to condemn the Pearlman’s illegalities, but they’re also conflicted in their condemnations — if not for Pearlman, they might not have careers at all, nor would pop music have evolved as it has. Pearlman screwed them, sure, crafting contracts that robbed them of millions of hard-earned dollars, but he also created a positive space for them to grow as artists and achieve genuine Billboard domination. As *NSYNC’s Joey Fatone put it during a post-screening Q&A, “Lou was a good businessman for himself…But he brought us together.”
He’s Not That Innocent: Kunkel has done his homework, gathering a diverse group of interviewees that include those that Pearlman fleeced through his elaborate Ponzi scheme, as well as the lawyers with whom he sparred and even his childhood best friend, who emerges as one of the film’s most tragic figures. Each provide insight into not just his character, but also his myriad processes. Similarly, excerpts from the phone calls he made from prison help to illuminate the depths of his own delusions. Delusion, after all, is a key theme here: What Kunkel and his subjects return to time and again is the palpable loneliness that radiated off Pearlman, and how the manager’s deep desire to be liked and respected led to him co-opting other people’s memories and conjuring up a life for himself that never existed. It’s sad, especially in light of how his contracts dictated he be the “sixth man” in each group he signed.
Sad as it is, though, it doesn’t erase the more than $300 million he bilked from innocent investors, the process of which is explored here at great length. Nor does it answer for the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct he faced during his career. Some, like Bass, say they never witnessed that side of him, while others produce some truly gut-roiling anecdotes. DeLoach claims that Pearlman surreptitiously filmed she and other women in states of undress without their consent, then showed those videos to his teen protégés.
As Long As You Love Me: The Boy Band Con occasionally doubles as a portrait of the teen-pop craze at the turn of the century, and some of its best moments come from hearing some of its subjects discuss the signing contracts that their lawyers begged them to avoid. Nearly everyone cops to knowing that Pearlman was a crook, but the idea of getting screwed out of money was not enough to eclipse the promise of regular MTV airplay, at least for the teens who started out in his shadow.
The excitement of these moments is short-lived, however, and the documentary stalls a bit as it digs into the dry details of Pearlman’s financial trickery. Though Kunkel does a fine job of laying out his story, he lacks a visual dynamism that can keep the narrative afloat in its more workmanlike sections. Talking heads and stock footage can only take one so far.
The Verdict: The Boy Band Con is functional and effective in exploring one of the most influential figures in modern music, shining a brighter light on a history that most music fans only know in bits and fragments. It will also offer anyone who grew up on boy bands and their ilk a compelling look at how the pop sausage was made in the not-so-distant past. A visual stylist would have benefitted the project, though, as its slickness and straightforward presentation often feels at odds with the candy-coated universe it inhabits. Still, the effort to offer a nuanced look at a man many deem to be purely reprehensible is commendable, as is its ability to frame a musical craze through a new lens. It never transcends itself in that regard and, as such, doesn’t climax so much as roll to a halt. Regardless, you’ll likely never listen to *NSYNC the same way again; as its members point out, No Strings Attached wasn’t a reference to their sex lives, but rather to their emancipation from Pearlman’s contract.