There’s a moment in the Lance Bass–produced documentary about boy-band puppeteer and notorious conman Lou Pearlman that’s more heartbreaking than any one of the forlorn love songs *NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys (Pearlman’s biggest conquests) ever recorded. It’s the scene in The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story when the five members of *NSYNC recount the time when, three years into their stadium-touring, million-of-records-sold, screaming-teen-inducing careers, they are finally presented with their first cheques. Bass, along with Justin Timberlake, Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick, and JC Chasez were at a fancy restaurant with Pearlman and their parents, expecting a massive pay day of at least seven figures. Instead, they are each handed a measly sum of $10,000.
Pearlman didn’t just swindle the singing-and-dancing superstars of the ’90s and early ’00s (boy bands Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, O-Town, LFO, Take 5, girl group Innosense, and solo acts Aaron Carter and Jordan Knight all worked with him), the producer was also running a $300-million Ponzi scheme. Pearlman was serving a 25-year prison sentence for his crimes when he died in 2016 from heart problems.
He passed away a disgraced fraudster, plagued by accusations of sexual misconduct, but in the prime of his deception, Pearlman also shaped pop music and founded some of the most popular boy bands of all time. There are multiple times in The Boy Band Con when he’s referred to as the “sixth member” of both *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. Bass fondly recalls hanging out at Pearlman’s house before he was exposed for embezzling money from the band. But his feelings about Pearlman are complicated: He was a manipulative monster, but he was also the “big kid” who gave Bass a career. *NSYNC would eventually win a lawsuit against Pearlman freeing them from their crappy contract. Their liberation album? No Strings Attached, a title Bass says he came up with in a cab with his bandmates. It’s those little details that make this documentary an enthralling look back for fans.
For non-fans, The Boy Band Con is a fascinating addition to the recent string of documentaries about notorious scammers, like the dueling Netflix and Hulu Fyre Fest docs and HBO’s Elizabeth Holmes exposé, The Inventor. This is the first from YouTube Originals (available via YouTube Premium, the platform’s own subscription streaming service for original content) and when it drops, Pearlman is sure to join Holmes and Fyre’s Billy McFarland as a Twitter punching bag.
I spoke with Bass and his collaborator on the film, director Aaron Kunkel, about Pearlman’s duplicity, the sexual misconduct accusations against him, which boy band members declined to participate, and the real reason *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys were feuding for so long (hint: it wasn’t just over a girl).
Refinery29: Lance, you’ve said you’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time. Why now?
Lance Bass: I just think it was the perfect time to tell the story because everyone is really giving victims a voice right now. I just wanted to give a platform for the victims of Lou Pearlman to be able to say their piece.
Some of those victims provided you with really informative and heartfelt interviews, like AJ McLean, JC Chasez, Ashley Angel, and Chris Kirkpatrick. Were there others you reached out to who declined to be in the doc?
Bass: I asked all the Backstreet Boys, and AJ was the only one that wanted to tell his story, and the Backstreet Boys felt like AJ would be able to tell their story, so they allowed him to do it. A lot of the cast were scared [because] they didn’t understand the tone that we were gonna use. Everything that has ever been told about Lou Pearlman has been salacious and dark, and I understand why they were a little scared to jump on board at first, but after we showed the first cut to a lot of people, they really started begging to be in the film.
Who decided to be in the film after they saw the first cut?
Bass: Johnny Wright [Justin Timberlake’s manager]. He wasn’t even in the first cut, but after he saw it, he really wanted to say his piece.
Aaron Kunkel: And Joey [Fatone] initially wasn’t interested in being a part of it either, but once he saw it, he loved it so much he came to [South By Southwest] to help us promote it, and he was there for our premiere.
Justin Timberlake’s mom, Lynn, is in the doc, but he isn’t. Did you ask him to be a part of it?
Bass: No, I didn’t ask Justin. I just figured that he would say no anyway. I’m sure the people around him wouldn’t want him involved. But I definitely wanted his mother and my mother in it, because they were there at the very beginning. I wanted to show that angle of the con — that even the adults in the room got totally duped.
From the outside looking in, you would think the adults would be the ones who would see through his act.
Bass: Yeah, you would think that, but they never knew anything about this business, you know? Especially my mom, she was a teacher, had no idea about music at all, so she was just very trusting of the other responsible people, including Lou Pearlman. We trusted that he was doing the right thing.
Kunkel: And something we really tried to get across in the doc was really showing how smart people can get duped by a conman. This can happen to anybody.
Aaron, can you speak more to the tone of the film? You spend a lot of time on Lou’s childhood and there are moments where it feels like it’s trying to be sympathetic portrayal.
Kunkel: We wanted to start the movie with the tone of what all the boys felt when everything was first starting, and that was excitement. When it comes to Lou’s childhood, we talked to multiple people from his childhood, and they had sympathetic views of what his childhood was. This isn’t a fully dark story about this horrible man. It’s a story about a three-dimensional person who has both bad and good sides. We wanted the tone to be able to reflect both of those sides.
There were rumors that Pearlman was sexually inappropriate with some of the band members he spent time with. Talk about the decision to include the accusations. [Note to readers: Several musicians have accused Pearlman of sexual harassment and misconduct, including that he touched them inappropriately, showed them pornography, and had cameras in a home tanning bed that performers used so he could view them naked. There were also rumors Pearlman had sexual relationships with band members. Richard Cronin, the lead singer of LFO, who died in 2010, accused Pearlman of offering an investor a look at his genitals.]
Kunkel: Ultimately, we wanted to tell the story of the people involved, so what we wanted to do is give everyone involved the platform to be able to talk about their experiences. It’s good that we are currently in a time where people are being allowed to speak their truths. And that was something that we definitely wanted to do, and ultimately you saw what we found out, which is that, yes there was a lot of discussion about Lou’s behavior that made people feel uncomfortable, that crossed the line, and was inappropriate, but there wasn’t any proof that we found that suggested abuse took place. We wanted to present the story as respectfully and as truthfully as we could, from the perspective of the people who lived it.
Bass: Yeah. I pretty much agree with what Aaron said, so I’ll double down on that. We wanted to just give everyone a platform to speak their truth and give them a voice.
Lance, you say in the doc that the most inappropriate behaviour from Lou you witnessed were massages that maybe went on a little too long. Do you believe the accusations?
Lance: I believe what I’ve been told by my bandmates and friends. Yes, there were times that Lou made people feel uncomfortable and acted creepy, and as I say in the documentary, I suspected that Lou may have been closeted and hiding his sexuality. But I don’t have any firsthand experience or knowledge that his behavior went beyond being creepy.
One of the most fascinating parts of the doc is watching Aaron Carter defend Lou so vehemently and tearfully. He really breaks down. Were you surprised by his response?
Bass: I was pretty surprised. I really wanted him in the doc because he was the one that knew Lou at the youngest age. And they had a different relationship — more of a family, more of a father figure. Unfortunately, at the time when we filmed him, he was going through a really hard time publicly. I was surprised he even wanted to sit down, but I was really excited that he gave us a good perspective.
Lance, the last time Lou reached out to you before his death was to pitch you a reality show… from prison. That’s wild.
Bass: He wanted to develop a show from prison so that he could pay back the Ponzi scheme victims. Ultimately, he just wanted to remain famous. The judge said, “For every million you pay back, I’ll give you a month off your prison sentence.” So, he thought maybe he could manage some bands from prison, and it would be a great TV show like Making the Band. But of course, prison is not going to allow you to do a TV show. [Laughs.]
Kunkel: We heard he even did start to organize some prisoners. I found out that out when we were down in Florida. I don’t think anything ever became of it and we looked for recordings and did not find any. He didn’t stop hustling until the day he died.
The doc revisits the glory years of boy bands. One of the biggest things I remember from that time was how much *NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys supposedly hated each other. You say in the doc that you wouldn’t even talk to them. That was part of Lou’s manipulation. He was pitting you against each other.
Bass: It was frustrating. You know, you always want to be the favorite kid. So, he made you really feel like you were the favorite kid. Once we found out that he was telling the other boys the same thing he was telling us, we felt duped all over again. You’re like, “Oh my gosh, I fell for it.” The Backstreet Boys were in the same boat.
Would you say that looking back, the fact that you were all Lou’s victims made you closer?
Bass: Definitely. We didn’t really bond until after we disbanded, but AJ McLean is one of my best friends now. It’s been great getting to know these guys.
Boy bands are having a resurgence. How likely is it that we’ll see *NSYNC get back in there?
Bass: I like performing on stage. You know, particularly with those guys. It would be so much fun, but you know we have zero plans to do that. I don’t see us doing an album, but we have enough material that we wrote that was going to be the next album. There are a lot of unheard instant songs.
And what’s holding you guys back from recording them?
Bass: Justin’s career, it just took off, you know? We were planning and writing the new album, but he just never stopped, like he just got bigger and bigger and bigger, and you know we weren’t going to stand in the way of his solo career. So, you know, we let him fly.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story premieres in theaters in New York and L.A. this week and on YouTube on April 3.
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