New Edition, But a Familiar Music Biopic

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New Edition Mini series, Los Angeles, California, June 6, 2016.(Photo by Bennett Raglin)
Photo: Bennett Raglin

The New Edition Story, the BET mini-series that traces the evolution and dissolution of the popular and influential ‘80s boy band, unfolds over not one, not two, but three nights. A six-hour television event, as BET is billing it, seems like a lot considering that Whitney Houston didn’t capture that much airtime when Lifetime gave her the two-hour TV movie treatment back in 2015, and a 1992 ABC mini-series about the Jacksons — who, as The New Edition Story makes clear, were a huge influence on New Edition — only took up four hours and two evenings in prime time.

You have to hand it to BET, though. The network knows its audience and knows that a large segment of it probably adored New Edition in their “Mr. Telephone Man” heyday. If the network builds a block of programming around Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe, and Ralph Tresvant, as well as later Brown replacement Johnny Gill, BET executives are confident viewers will come, and so will advertisers. Seriously, there are so many commercial breaks built into The New Edition Story that anyone who watches live can comfortably drink the contents of an entire punch bowl and still have plenty of time for bathroom breaks and, possibly, a trip to the grocery store to get more punch.

The mini-series, which airs Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights at 9 and counts every member of the group as a co-producer, touches on every predictable ingredient that’s baked into the music biopic: the coalescing of talent that results in a record deal, jealousy and conflicts between band members, money troubles, unscrupulous managers, unexpected pregnancies, drug use. Even if you know nothing about New Edition —  who recorded major hits like “Candy Girl” and “Cool It Now,” spawned the success of Bobby Brown’s solo career and spinoff group Bell Biv DeVoe, and paved a harmonizing path for subsequent artists like Boyz II Men, who named themselves after a New Edition track — you will still see what’s coming from 850 miles away while sitting in the dark with your contact lenses removed.

The energetic and musically talented cast elevates the project by several notches. The young men cast as New Edition in their preteen years — including Jahi Diallo Winston, previously seen on AMC’s short-lived Feed the Beast, as Ralph, and Caleb McLaughlin from Stranger Things as Ricky — are bundles of energy with obvious raw talent. When the five upstarts do a version of the Jackson Five’s “Stop” at a talent night hosted by record producer Maurice Starr, they put on a fireworks display of footwork and kid swagger that is just plain fun to watch.

Their adult counterparts, including Empire’s Bryshere Y. Gray as Michael, Elijah Kelley (The Wiz Live! and Hairspray) as Bell, and newcomer Woody McClain as Brown, also bring the necessary intensity and vocal chops  to the production. But as things begin to fall apart —  spoiler alert: Bobby Brown starts doing coke, pissing off everybody, and gets booted from the band —  The New Edition Story feels more and more like something that’s played out ad nauseam in a zillion other biopics. The transition from “young” New Edition to “old” New Edition —  in which a close-up of each younger cast member morphs into a tight shot on the more mature model —  also provides the most unintentionally comic moment in the whole mini-series. In what is supposed to have happened in less than a year, these guys go from looking like sixth-graders to dudes of legal drinking age. I know they sing a song called “Boys to Men,” but there is no reason to be that literal about it.

There are other standouts in the cast as well, including an understated, paternal Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale from The Wire) as Brooke Payne, the band’s first manager and mentor; Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley Bivins, mother of Michael; and Sandi McCree as the outspoken mother of Bobby Brown, whose reading of the line, “Where’s the damn money?” is destined to be GIF’d.

Engaging performers can’t do all the work by themselves, though. While The New Edition Story is honest about the failings of its superstars, it also holds back from putting those shortcomings on display in a way that might get too ugly or revealing. It’s weirdly not detailed enough —  Brown’s relationship with Houston is barely acknowledged, and, dammit, they don’t even show one second of the “Cool It Now” video being filmed —  and too bloated for its own good, especially in its overly padded third act.

By the closing scene, which features a lengthy series of flashbacks to events we just witnessed during the previous two nights, my feeling was, “All right, BET. This had its moments. But you can probably cool it now.”

New Edition: A Familiar Music Biopic