“Mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip, with a pop feel appeal to it” is how Ricky Bell of Bell Biv DeVoe described their 1990 debut album, Poison, to reporters. Spun off from the trendsetting boy band New Edition, the trio helped pioneer the early-’90s sound that became known as New Jack Swing, and long after pop moved on to other modes, they’ve remained quietly influential. When Bell Biv DeVoe blurred the lines between singing and rapping — not juxtaposing two distinct approaches, like Run-DMC and Aerosmith on “Walk This Way,” but naturally flowing together — they laid the groundwork for the immensely popular style whose current prince is Drake. Half the songs on the radio in 2017 could be described as “mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip, with a pop feel appeal.” When The Weeknd sings about how he’s “in the blue Mulsanne, bumping New Edition” on his recent chart-topper “Starboy,” he’s only making explicit the song’s savvy stylistic homage.
This month, BBD re-emerged into the spotlight with a new album, Three Stripes, and the week-long broadcast of The New Edition Story, a three-part BET miniseries about the rise, fall, and maturation of the original group. (Full disclosure: BET, like MTV, is owned by Viacom.) There’s never been a better way to reacquaint yourself with their music — or a better time. In chaotic, frightening moments such as these, it’s important to try to embrace pleasure and comfort where you can, and it’s a good idea to take breaks from the terrifying news to remember why the world is worth saving. I found myself sinking into The New Edition Story like a bubble bath, not just because it felt luxuriously nostalgic to revisit ’80s and ’90s R&B, but because the miniseries is so well executed. It features a strong cast of young actors, including Bryshere Y. Gray (who plays Hakeem Lyon on Empire) as Michael Bivins and a cast of talented rookie actors as the rest of New Edition. There’s also Michael Rapaport as Gary Evans, the piece’s shady Jerry Heller character, and Wood Harris (of The Wire) as choreographer Brooke Payne. Newcomer Woody McClain plays the young adult Bobby Brown so well — perfectly capturing Brown’s wild charisma — that he steals the show whenever he’s onscreen, mirroring history.
The song they sing together is a familiar one, most recently performed by Camila Cabello, and before that by Zayn Malik. When there’s a successful singing group, it’s usually only a matter of time until the original lineup fractures due to internal conflict and a desire for solo careers. Splitting a check five ways sucks, especially when the people who are supposed to be protecting you may actually be skimming off the top. Eternal truths like this are part of the reason why biopics like The New Edition Story are so comforting to watch: Their familiar structure always stays the same, no matter the subject. Act One is the struggle toward success, Act Two the highs and lows once the protagonists get there, and Act Three the redemption and/or resolution. Rinse, repeat, rewatch.
Many biopics smooth out the edges of life stories to fit into this formula, but the best ones hit the expected beats in a satisfyingly new way — like New Edition doing Jackson 5 covers at talent shows in the earliest phase of their career. New Edition got their coordinated outfits from the Jackson 5, too, and their soul group choreography from The Temptations and The Four Tops. They were discovered at a talent show by Maurice Starr, who later replicated the formula with another Boston boy band, New Kids on the Block. The idea of each group member being a slightly different archetype for girls to crush on — the cute one, the smart one, the shy one, the funny one — was a finishing touch straight from Beatlemania. New Edition’s hybrid formula was so successful that Lou Pearlman later said it inspired him to create the blockbuster boy bands of the later ’90s, The Backstreet Boys and NSYNC.
Written by Surf’s Up 2 screenwriter Abdul Williams and directed by Chris Robinson — a music video veteran with credits like Beyoncé and Jay Z’s “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” and the T.I.-starring feature film ATL under his belt — The New Edition Story is, among other things, a much better argument for the continued relevance of onscreen musicals than La La Land. All the performances are in the story, and the dance sequences are shot and cut beautifully to emphasize what great dancers New Edition and the young actors playing them were and are. At key moments, Robinson cuts to lovingly recreated music videos by New Edition and their various subgroups and solo jaunts. It works so well in part because the performance sequences are allowed to breathe, with the hours-long TV miniseries format granting the time and space for entire songs. These dancing and singing sequences clearly get across what made New Edition so popular in the first place, reflected through the chemistry of the young actors who play the original five members and, later, Bobby Brown replacement Johnny Gill. There are well-chosen music cues that establish entire time periods in New Edition’s career: De La Soul’s “Me, Myself and I” in 1989, as the group’s rifts deepen at an industry party; the paranoiac thump of Busta Rhymes’s “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” in 1997, as their egos and vanities get out of control and their careers’ fortunes take a collective dive; and a redemptive 2000 wedding set to the remix of Jagged Edge’s “Let’s Get Married.”
The series opens at a low point from late in the band’s arc — a 1997 show where Bell Biv DeVoe rush Brown onstage in New Mexico and a fight breaks out — then flashes back to the 1970s to introduce the members of New Edition as young kids who meet growing up in the Orchard Park projects of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Their mothers (including Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley Bivins and La La Anthony as Flo DeVoe) sign contracts that enable the boys to go on tour, not finding out until it’s too late that they’ve all been duped out of royalties and payments by exploitative men. From there, it’s a coming-of-age story: During one musical sequence, the child actors morph into the young men who play them for the rest of the miniseries. Sex and drugs come into the picture the same moment that fame does, which just happens to be right after puberty. Soon we see the members of the group chafing against the restrictions of their bubblegum origins, and in tracing the path from New Edition’s “Candy Girl” to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Do Me!,” the miniseries offers a convenient shorthand for how ’80s R&B became ’90s R&B. As they sexed up both their music and their dancing, New Edition’s members helped pushed the boundaries for just how dirty mainstream pop was allowed to get. Years later, their transformation from squeaky-clean kid stars to squeaky-bed-springs adults was a clear reference point for Britney Spears, who covered Bobby Brown's “My Prerogative” in 2004.
In the series’ second and third parts, we see another turning point in New Edition’s story — and the story of pop itself. After producing the group’s quadruple-platinum New Jack Swing landmark Heart Break in 1988, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis suggested that Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe find time for a side project. The runaway success of this idea centered around the easy friendship between the three, and, unsurprisingly, it further splintered the still-extant New Edition, which had been cracked ever since Bobby Brown left to go solo. In the movie, Ralph Tresvant gets inspired by Phil Collins to make a solo album while remaining in New Edition, but the rest of the group won’t have it — prompting the instantly iconic line “We can’t be Phil Collins and the Genesis. You don't even play drums!” — and then Tresvant feels stabbed in the back when Bell, Bivins, and DeVoe ignore their own decree and spontaneously form a side project that surpasses the mothership. As New Edition evolved into adult contemporary, Bell Biv DeVoe embraced more youthfully current sounds, using producers including Public Enemy’s studio crew The Bomb Squad to make hard-edged R&B that drew from electronic music and rap as much as traditional soul. Their huge hit “Poison” was influenced by Kraftwerk (pseudo-industrial drums) and Tito Puente (brass stabs), according to its producer Dr. Freeze. Even now, “Poison” still sounds unlike anything else.
When I went to listen to BBD’s 2017 comeback album, Three Stripes, I was slightly disappointed to find that it doesn't put much effort into reviving New Jack Swing, instead settling for modern-day pop-R&B in the mode of Chris Brown with slightly back-dated drum presets. It doesn’t fully suit them, or the otherwise nostalgic bent of an album that opens with a beatboxed intro from Doug E. Fresh and goes on to showcase guest spots from SWV and Boyz II Men (whom Bivins discovered and managed). Slow-cooked sex jam “All Dat There” is the clear highlight, with a beat that encircles the listener like a round satin bed. I also enjoyed “Finally,” the SWV duet about grown-up love, because Coko from SWV has one of my favorite voices of all time, and hearing her on the track was like getting a call from a friend.
The New Edition Story is so well done that it could absolutely have been released in theaters, capitalizing on the audience that Straight Outta Compton demonstrated exists for substantial biopics about artists of the semi-recent past. As it is, it’s up there with 1998’s The Temptations and 1992’s The Jacksons: An American Dream in the TV Movies About Music Hall of Fame. Bobby Brown’s addiction issues aren’t played for laughs, and you see how incredibly young he was when he first started getting offered coke at industry parties. Brown’s relationship with Whitney Houston is, wisely, not even depicted onscreen — that would have drawn too much focus away from the story of New Edition.
Instead, we watch as the boys learn to harmonize, work their asses off, sacrifice their childhood friendships on the altar of fame, drift apart, and finally come back together as they admit how much they all need each other. The movie emphasizes that New Edition were no major-label-made creation — their success was hardly preordained. The members put blood, sweat, and years of mishandled money into their careers. Because the stakes are high for the characters, there’s genuine suspense whenever something threatens the group’s stability — usually in the form of Bobby Brown leaving or showing up late or jumping onstage unannounced. That the group’s main rival in later years was a former member and their childhood friend is dramatically satisfying, too. It shows us what drove Bell Biv DeVoe to form their own group: They wanted to prove that they could out-hump-around Bobby, on a smoothed-out tip.
Because The New Edition Story is so three-dimensional, it’s easy to invest the requisite chunk of hours in watching it. I’ve overheard people talking about how good it was, saying it far exceeded their expectations. It’s comfort food, in a time when comfort is desperately needed. The miniseries closes with the group reuniting in 2005 for their BET 25th-anniversary special. When I heard the reprise of “Can You Stand the Rain,” Heart Break’s perfect Jam/Lewis quiet storm, playing over the end credits, I got misty. Sometimes you just need to see a happy ending.