There’s a scene in Part 3 of “The New Edition Story” in which five aspiring singers greet New Edition member Michael Bivins after one of the band’s shows in the late 1980s. As it turns out, they’re a singing group. “Can we have a moment of your time? We just want to sing for you,” one of the singers tells him. “We love New Edition. We trying to get a record deal.”
That group was Boyz II Men.
Tuesday night, BET premiered the first part of the biographical miniseries, which over the course of six hours not only follows the pioneering boy band on the road from precocious pop quintet to icons but also shows how their collective and solo careers helped shape the R&B acts that followed them.
Bivins has been credited with discovering Boyz II Men, the Philadelphia-raised vocal quartet named after one of New Edition’s songs. He also served as a mentor to new jack swing group Another Bad Creation (ABC) and girl group 702. Through its ability to transition from bubblegum pop to ’90s-era R&B and gain a more adult audience, New Edition served as a model for fellow boy bands like New Kids on the Block. Its influence has also reached such solo artists as Beyoncé, who used the group’s signature dance moves as a point of reference in her “Love On Top” music video, and Bruno Mars, whose most recent album was partly inspired by the act’s music.
Early on, the miniseries shows that on the group’s journey to iconic status, fame inevitably put a strain on their relationships with each other. In its opening scene, the biopic finds Bivins (played by Bryshere Y. Gray), Ricky Bell (Ellijah Kelly), Bobby Brown (Woody McClain), Ralph Tresvant (Algee Smith), Ronnie DeVoe (Keith Powers) and Johnny Gill (Luke James) in Las Cruces, N.M., in 1997. Following years of hit singles, contractual disputes and a series of successful solo projects, the musicians revive the group for its sixth studio album, “Home Again,” in 1996 and set out on a national tour. It’s during their stop in New Mexico that a fight breaks out on stage between Brown and DeVoe after Brown attempts to continue performing past his set time.
This moment is narrated by Wood Harris, who plays Brooke Payne, the band’s original choreographer and manager, who helped form the group in Boston 1978. “I don’t know how everything got so bad, the egos, the in-fighting, the jealousy. It wasn’t always like this,” he says. “When I met them even at that young age, there was a brotherhood,” he says. “In the beginning, it was pure.”
The episode then flashes back to walk viewers through the group’s early years. Fronted by Tresvant (whose signature falsetto made him a standout vocalist) and Brown (who also sang lead on a number of New Edition’s biggest hits), the group churned out catchy tunes about young love including “Cool It Now,” “Popcorn Love” and “Candy Girl,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1983, beating out Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
The next installment, airing Wednesday, begins in 1984. That year, the group released its sophomore studio album — which featured a cover of reggae singer Junior Tucker’s “Mr. Telephone Man” — before Brown’s antics on and off stage resulted in him being unanimously voted out by the rest of the group in 1986. By the late 1980s, their sound was maturing. After Gill replaced Brown, New Edition dropped its fifth studio album, “Heart Break” (1988), which featured the track “If It Isn’t Love” and the Jimmy Jam- and Terry Lewis-produced classic “Can You Stand the Rain.” Thursday night’s final episode returns to the brawl in 1997, detailing the events that led up to the fight in addition to Ricky Bell’s struggle with drug abuse.
The cast’s portrayals have an air of authenticity in part because all of the members of the group were involved in piecing together the narrative. In recent years, we’ve seen that without adequate input from their subjects (or those close to them), biopics like “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B” can stir backlash for focusing on less notable aspects of an musician’s career. (Though there’s also room for concern when biopics produced by their subjects leave out unfavorable parts of their past. The 2015 N.W.A. film “Straight Outta Compton,” co-produced by Dr. Dre, was praised for being well-scripted and cast but was widely criticized for its omission of Dr. Dre’s history of abuse toward women.)
On Monday, ahead of the biopic’s premiere, New Edition received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In November, the Undefeated published a piece that questioned why the band had yet to be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — an honor for which it’s been eligible since 2009. “The New Edition Story” offers viewers who grew up with the group’s music (and newer listeners) a unique opportunity to gain a better understanding of its backstory and how it affected R&B. And perhaps the series can help further cement New Edition’s legacy.
“The New Edition Story,” airs tonight, Jan. 25 and concludes Jan. 26 on BET at 9 p.m.