Movies

SXSW Film Review: ‘The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story’

Filmmaker Aaron Kunkel fashions an absorbing true-crime narrative with a danceable beat from the testimonies of exploited pop celebrities, bilked investors, criminal investigators and not-so-quietly aghast onlookers in “The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story.” Briskly efficient in its construction and execution, the documentary, which will be available to YouTube Premium subscribers starting April 3, focuses on the high times and low dealings of the Orlando-based music impresario and Ponzi scheme swindler who famously launched the groups *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys — and infamously used their success to provide a patina of legitimacy for his complex web of bank and investor fraud.

Kunkel demonstrates his own instinct for showmanship by starting his story in the early 1990s, when Pearlman — a small-time, Queens-born wheeler-dealer who reinvented himself in Florida as head of an air-charter business — culled two groups of teenage hunks from the ranks of young entertainers at Disney World and other Orlando-area tourist attractions, and set about transforming them into teen-girl fave-raves. (The most high-profile of the lot: *NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake, who already was grabbing attention on the rebooted “Mickey Mouse Club.”)

Despite having little or no actual background in showbiz, Pearlman was so impressed by the success of New Kids on the Block that he established his own Trans Continental Records label, then oversaw the selection, rigorous training and control-freakish management of the singing-and-dancing Backstreet Boys. Then he made lighting strike twice while using the same formula with *NSYNC. As members of both boy bands recall, the self-styled music mogul played them against one another by encouraging each group to view the other as a rival for the hearts (and disposable income) of the demographic known in an earlier era as teenyboppers.

As naïve as they might have been, the hot young hitmakers recognized their manager as a hustler. Looking back, AJ McLean of Backstreet Boys opines that, had he not gone into the music business, Pearlman might have been the most successful car salesman of all time: “He would have convinced you that there were features on the car that didn’t exist yet.” Still, the boy bandmates remained persuaded that he was their hustler — a “big kid” who looked out for them, allowed them to party-hearty, and generally ingratiated himself to the point that he was accepted as virtually the sixth member of each five-man group.

But then the members of *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys, along with their parents and lawyers, discovered how Pearlman had cajoled them into signing contracts that gave him the vast majority of the millions they were generating through concerts and CD sales, while they were paid the equivalent of minimum wage. Not surprisingly, lawsuits followed.

About a third of the way into “The Boy Band Con,” Kunkel leaps back a couple decades to Queens, to examine the formative years of his subject. Interviews with Pearlman’s relatively few childhood friends provide a portrait of an inveterate fabulist who started out spinning tales about his savvy handling of paper routes, and graduated to using carefully framed photos of model airplanes to sustain the illusion that he actually owned aircraft for his air-charter business. (Ironically, the most seemingly incredible of his claims was true: Art Garfunkel actually was his cousin, and showed up at his bar mitzvah celebration.) Ultimately, a remarkably brassy bit of insurance fraud helped pave his path to Orlando, where cheating boy bands would turn out to be only the most highly publicized of his scams.

What made Lou Pearlman tick? “The Boy Band Con” makes no attempt to mask its condemnation of its subject. Indeed, Lance Bass of *NSYNC, one of the film’s producers, is given ample time on screen to discuss Pearlman’s chicanery with his mom, Diane Bass. Other interviewees go so far to suggest — if not directly charge — that Pearlman was driven to organize and obsess over boy bands because he was, at the very least, a repressed pederast. Still others theorize that this “fleshy, jovial, cherubic little guy” spent his lifetime overcompensating for a lonely childhood, and enjoyed his status as a sixth Backstreet Boy even more than the millions he siphoned away from the bands.

(Conspicuous by his absence from the list of interviewees: Rep. Charlie Crist, who, according to an on-screen announcement, declined an invitation to discuss his reported unwillingness to probe too deeply into Pearlman’s dodgy business dealings while Crist was Florida’s attorney general.)

In the end, however, one walks away from the documentary with the impression that Perlman, who died behind bars at age 62 in 2016, did all that he did — everything from exploiting boy bands to defrauding business investors for an estimated $500 million — simply because he was able to do those things. And, just as important, because people kept making the mistake of believing his B.S. Arguably the most stunning scenes in “The Boy Band Con” are those in which members of bands Pearlman formed after *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys admit they’d heard all the stories about how he cheated those groups, but signed on with him anyway because, well, a recording contract is a recording contract. The investors he bilked, one federal investigator claims, may have been just as willfully blind.

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