Long before—and after—he was a celebrated mogul, Lou Pearlman was a financial criminal, a grifter who made millions in fraud money. After he rented out a $250,000-a-month private jet to New Kids on the Block in the mid-’80s, he realized how much they were earning and set out to build his own boy band empire. In his career as a manager, he proceeded to cheat his clients out of millions with bad contracts and was eventually convicted for his decades of deception. In 2016, he died in prison at age 62. YouTube Originals’ new documentary, The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story, which premiered Wednesday (April 3), investigates Pearlman’s well-known business crimes and power dynamics in the world of pop, but it mostly neglects the allegations of sexual misconduct against him. It hovers around, but doesn’t ask, the tough questions a documentary of its kind really should, and in doing so, steers clear of real meaningful conversation.
Most boy bands, by nature, have a mastermind pulling the strings: New Edition and New Kids on the Block had Maurice Starr; One Direction had Simon Cowell; and in the ’90s, the Backstreet Boys, N*SYNC, LFO, O-Town, and almost every other act that was part of the teen-pop explosion, had Lou Pearlman. With the exception of Cowell, these managers were viewed as crooks—New Edition cut ties with Starr in 1984 after returning home from a nationwide tour to a check totaling $1.87 each. It was legal because the contract they signed, they’d soon find out, was horrific. New Kids on the Block split from Starr in 1993 when he began taking full credit for their success, discrediting the boys in the process. Pearlman was viewed similarly, but more dastardly: while his groups ushered in a new lucrative period in pop, he maneuvered with car salesman-type lies, non-disclosure agreements, and legal documents that made him the sixth and most powerful member of his five-person groups.
Produced by N*SYNC’s Lance Bass, The Boy Band Con plays out like a true-crime biopic meant to tackle Pearlman’s unethical moves, with anecdotes from his artists—Aaron Carter, Backstreet Boys member A.J. McLean, O-Town’s Ashley Parker Angel—as well as Pearlman’s former business partners. Each shot, a close frame on a distraught person screwed over by his many schemes, is paired with dramatized footage: a hand gripping a couch, a contract thrown on a table, a large shadow over a steakhouse meal.
It’s an engrossing watch that certainly feeds into a population hungry for crime-based television, but there’s little in the way of new information. Narratively, the film compiles existing reports into a compound chronology, which makes it seem like a direct adaptation of Tyler Gray’s 2008 book, The Hit Charade: Lou Pearlman, Boy Bands, and the Biggest Ponzi Scheme in U.S. History. Fans of these acts have known most of the stories for years: the six-man agreement, Pearlman’s foray into insurance fraud, the Ponzi schemes, his childhood as a chubby, dishonest loner. If there is any justification for the film’s existence, it’s that it compiles Pearlman’s story in a short, digestible way, and that its YouTube Originals format may familiarize a younger audience with the ’90s boy band way of life.
My hope, going in, was that the film wouldn’t just rehash Pearlman’s crimes, and that it might finally unpack the sexual misconduct allegations that have publicly haunted him since at least 2007, when Vanity Fair published an article titled “Mad About Boys.” In that piece, Pearlman’s inappropriate behaviors ranged from allegations of showing pornographic movies to teenage boys and jumping “naked onto their beds in the morning to wrestle and play” to scenes of “young singers seen emerging from his bedroom late at night, buttoning their pants, sheepish looks on their faces.” The accusations remained largely unexplored.
In The Boy Band Con, very little time (eight minutes, to be exact) is spent on those allegations against Pearlman, and not until a full hour into the documentary. O-Town’s Ashley Parker Angel introduces the topic by describing his only private encounter with Pearlman, which is worth hearing in full. Angel says, in part:
“He calls me in his room and he’s like, ‘I want to talk to you about your performance.’ Against the advice of a lot of these other people, I go up to his room. By the way, the whole time, he was very good at playing on your desire to be successful. He would say things to me like, ‘You’re the Justin Timberlake. You’re the Nick Carter, but you gotta stay in shape, man.’ He takes it a step further and says, ‘I minored in physical therapy in college, I can give your muscles a pump without you even working out. Come here, let me rub your muscles.’ So then it starts turning into this weird massage, and then all the red flags start pumping up, like, oh this is what everyone has been talking about. Then the phone rings and its my manager. He goes to answer the phone and I got the hell out of there. That’s the only experience I had with Lou that felt like, okay, this definitely feels like its crossing some sort of line.”
Angel also recalls a story LFO’s Rich Cronin told on The Howard Stern Show in 2009: According to Cronin, Pearlman approached LFO with a big opportunity in Europe with a major record executive. The documentary cuts to the original audio of Cronin on Stern, where he’s heard saying, “[Pearlman] goes, ‘All he wants to do is touch your penis. And I don’t know what happens after that. Pretty much, just touch your penis and you know, play with it. And guess what else? In college, I was a Psychology minor. I’m gonna help you get through it mentally.’ He goes, ‘Well, think about it, guys. Don’t say this to— don’t you fucking tell anyone.’” The repetitive “minor” line, in both Cronin and Angel’s experiences, is never dissected. The film instead jumps to the next allegation, as if running through a list.
The only person who unequivocally defends Pearlman in the doc is an animated Aaron Carter, who shouts, “My opinion of Lou being a sexual predator is that, that is not true.” He stares directly into the camera with an unblinking scowl, “Shut up... about that, guys.” After Innosense’s Nikki DeLoach, one of the few women to work with Pearlman, claims that he secretly filmed her inside of a tanning bed in his home and then showed the footage to his boy bands, Carter responds in the next frame, “It’s all lies. I went in that tanning bed all the time. My mom did, too. She searched through it before she would let me go through it for cameras. So did my dad.” One of Pearlman’s former label employees claims that Pearlman had cameras all over his house. The control room was allegedly in Pearlman’s bedroom, so he could watch what was happening at all times.
Many of the musicians in the film describe conflicting feelings about Pearlman: he stole from them, he lied to them, he was inappropriate with them, but he also made their careers. Maybe timing is to blame for why the misconduct surrounding Pearlman was never fully examined—the allegations surfaced in the ’90s, before the age of Me Too. It’s clear, in listening to these musicians talk, though, that they viewed abuse in the music industry almost like growing pains: the business was a place full of people in positions of power who took advantage of hungry talent. If you wanted to make it, you had to accept that fact.
Still, it’s a different time period, and Pearlman is gone. Why were the few accusations brought up treated like an afterthought? What are viewers supposed to take from it? It’s clear that the filmmakers were reluctant to go deep into those allegations, but felt it was necessary to mention them. By doing so, the same question I had going into the documentary remains: What is Pearlman able to hide, even in death?