Review: The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story

by Andrew Parker

The title of Aaron Kunkel’s documentary The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story suggests a look back at a time not so long ago when one man cornered the pop music market and controlled the minds of teenage consumers, but it’s far more complex and rewarding than that. Although Kunkel and producer/interview subject Lance Bass (who knows a thing or two about being an in manufactured and highly marketable pop act) take a deep dive into the backstage dealings of a controversial showbiz impresario and entrepreneur of the late nineties and early aughts, but instead of treading heavily on its established pop culture and nostalgic credentials, The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story looks beyond the obvious to uncover a man who committed more (and worse) misdeeds than the ones that irreparably tarnished his name.

Lou Pearlman grew up in Queens, New York as a troubled, aviation obsessed youngster with few friends and a penchant for spinning tall tales. In the late 80s and early 90s, his company would make a name for itself for renting out a (supposed) fleet of private planes, helicopters, and jets to A-listers and licensing their blimps for lucrative corporate sponsorships, but around 1991 when Pearlman caught a glimpse of how much money New Kids on the Block were making, a light bulb switched on above his constantly strategizing head. Pearlman expanded his empire to include a recording branch, and set about putting together the next huge boy band. Pearlman would be responsible not only for the rise and success of Backstreet Boys, but also *NSYNC, which was the music industry equivalent of owning Coca-Cola and Pepsi at the same time. Flush with relatively unchecked power and influence, Pearlman would also be responsible for the likes of Take 5, O-Town, LFO, Innosense, and C-Note, but his biggest acts would quickly get hip to the downside of their success. Terribly structured, one sided contracts, no days off, $35 dollar a day per diems, and inexplicably limp pay days that equated to sub-minimum wage employment would cost the seemingly jovial and attentive Pearlman a great deal of credibility among the artists he represented.

That’s the story most people know about Pearlman, if they know anything at all, and at the time, it was mostly all the artists who fought their way out from under his thumb understood. With The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story, Kunkel illustrates in great detail traumas that go far beyond a handful of musicians whose time at the top wasn’t as sunny as it could’ve been. In fact, most of the “boy band” stuff is dealt with primarily in the film’s opening third, and then only brought up whenever appropriate to the overall narrative of Pearlman’s convoluted and perplexing life. Boasting more than a handful of revealing and daming interviews with performers and families who worked with Pearlman, a great deal of The Boy Band Con outlines how everyone thought of their lifestyles as being “too good to be true” and more than a bit surreal, but that it took some time for their exposure and successes to be questioned. There’s a fair amount of regret expressed for not questioning things sooner, but the performers interviewed here all seem to chalk their dealings with their underhanded manager as painful learning experiences (except for Aaron Carter who both looks like he’s going through some unfathomably hard times and seems like he’s willing to defend Pearlman’s name and honour to his own death, emerging as one of the few interviewees who has anything nice to say about him).

Anyone with a nose for pop culture will immediately be attracted to the overall story behind The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story, but Kunkel makes it known early on that the music industry was only one portion of a much larger picture. It wasn’t Pearlman’s screwing over, exploitation, and mistreatment of hungry, young performers that led to his ultimate undoing, but a larger ponzi scheme that duped thousands of everyday people out of over a hundred million dollars via bank, investment, and insurance fraud. Kunkel knows that he can’t talk about Pearlman without talking about the musical acts that brought him his greatest fame and infamy, but he’s clearly more invested as a filmmaker in the toll his deceptions took on honest, hardworking, everyday people. In many ways, Pearlman’s continued high finance cons and his success as a music mogul were a case of one hand washing the other, but both hands were dirty, covered in bleeding papercuts, and there was never any water to begin with.

The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story is expertly outlined and disarmingly more complex than one might suspect from the title and subject matter. Pearlman was always a slippery character. Whenever cornered, he would lash out, threaten people, and blame everyone but himself for his troubles. At the same time and by many accounts he was a great listener who would often bend over backwards to help out a friend in need. The interviews conducted by Kunkel are insightful, forlorn, and incendiary in equal measure. Everyone who speaks out about Pearlman has something to get off their chests (including journalists and a former member of the Florida D.A.’s office), and they all have different ways of expressing their rightful frustrations. Some people are angrier than others (and justifiably so), but all of those profiled in The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story look like they have a visible weight being lifted, even in the absence of any real sense of closure. Kunkel’s sit-down interviews contrast nicely with a wealth of well incorporated archival footage, home movies, and soundbites, especially some particularly curious and chilling comments from Pearlman himself via a recorded phone call with a former friend and business partner.

Even if you can’t stand the songs and bands that came from the era being profiled in Kunkel’s film, The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story remains enthralling and eye opening. Few titans and villains of industry are as complicated and varied as Pearlman, and the interconnected nature of his deceptions haven’t been as thoughtfully and personally outlined before now. The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story isn’t just a look back at the down side of pop music iconography, but also one of the most engaging and gutting true crime stories so far this year.

The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story is now available on YouTube Premium.

Check out the trailer for The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story:

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