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New Edition fans, if you’re planning on tuning in to BET’s three-night miniseries about the R&B group, premiering Jan. 24, be prepared to see a movie that has a lot more in common with recent musical biographies like Straight Outta Compton and the History of the Eagles documentary. Like those fine flicks, The New Edition Story focuses on the music, and, in this instance, uses it to plot a timeline of the group’s history. From their beginnings as preteens in Boston’s Orchard Park projects and eventual international success to their turbulent personal histories, music industry trials, and changing lineup thanks to various side projects and solo albums, the miniseries features all six New Edition members as producers — leading to an honest, warts-and-all story that holds surprises for even the most devoted fans of Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe, and Johnny Gill.
The New Edition Story executive producer Jesse Collins, who has produced everything from the Grammys and the Soul Train Awards to the BET Awards and Kevin Hart’s BET mockumentary Real Husbands of Hollywood, talked to Yahoo TV about how his long history of working with New Edition led to the ambitious miniseries; how producers Babyface and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis helped shape the movie’s music focus; how the cast (including Empire‘s Bryshere Gray and Stranger Things‘ Caleb McLaughlin) learned New Edition’s songs and meticulously choreographed routines during an intense, month-long boot camp; and why the “seventh member” of the group, a previously unsung hero of the New Edition story, will finally share some of the spotlight in The New Edition Story.
Yahoo TV: The miniseries is great, and I think the main reason it’s so fun is because there was obviously a decision made to focus on the music. We get performances of entire New Edition songs throughout the three nights.
Jesse Collins: Thank you. With the benefit of being able to clear all that music, and with Babyface doing the early songs, and then having Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis come onboard and produce everything that they produced for the actual group, it really made the music stand out. It doesn’t get much better than that.
How difficult was it to clear all of that?
I think we got very lucky. New Edition has a lot of love and respect around the industry, and there are people at Universal, where their catalog sits, that were at Universal and MCA when they were signed to the label 20 years ago. People like Jeff Harleston, who were there during their run, did everything they could to make sure that we got that music. The same thing goes for Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who did the Heart Break album and Home Again album. When we had our conversations about it, they were like, “We’ll do whatever we can to make this work and make this right, because these guys deserve it.” It makes it much easier, because your conversation is, “Babyface wants to do this,” or, “Jimmy and Terry want to do this,” and people say, “OK.” And it’s New Edition. The waters start to part.
What sparked the idea to do the miniseries?
That started about 10 years ago. I [produced] a show for BET, for [the network’s] 25th anniversary. At the time, I had dealt with New Edition a lot in a lot of different scenarios. But in producing that show, it was the first time I had ever dealt with them where there wasn’t a buffer in the sense that there wasn’t a label person and there wasn’t a manager. I was dealing with them directly. It was the first time that I got to really see how that group functioned or doesn’t function. I got to see the function and the dysfunction all in one. It was not the way I thought that group operated, and the roles that each one of them has in the group are not what I had thought.
When we got through with that show, I called Mike Bivins at, like, six in the morning, and I was like, “Nobody would believe that this is the relationship. We should really tell this story, because it won’t be what people expect.” I think people have a really specific idea of what they think the New Edition story is, and they believe that all the crazy stuff was because of Bobby and he’s the only one that went through problems. It’s just not true. You see all that in the film. Anyway, long story short, they were willing to start the conversation to tell the story and really pull back the curtain and show who they are.
That’s another aspect of the miniseries that is so compelling — it doesn’t seem like anything was sugarcoated. All six group members are producers on the project, so obviously, it’s authorized. But was there any hesitancy at any point by the guys?
The development process was, Abdul Williams, who’s an amazing writer, went and sat with each member individually and basically got them to tell the story of New Edition from their perspective. Then, we put all six perspectives together, and that was the basis of the movie. It was interesting, because when they first read the script, for them, they were learning about things, kind of like the audience will. Two people can have the same experience, but it affects them in two completely different ways. These guys didn’t communicate how they felt about certain things ever, so a lot of things came out, a lot of warts came out, when they read this script. Then, that was the moment of truth, of, “OK, are you guys going to move forward with this story now that you kind of see what happened?” They said, “Yes, let’s do it. Let’s just tell the story.”
There’s that great scene in the miniseries at Ronnie’s wedding where Ralph and Mike have a very honest conversation. Was that an example of one of those moments you’re talking about?
Ralph and Mike, yeah… they have pieced together their relationship, so basically, that was a combination of a couple of conversations that they’ve had to just come to an understanding of how they each felt when Ralph went solo, which was kind of like a big line was drawn in their relationship in that moment. It took them a long time to get to a place to admit how they were feeling and why they acted the way they did. I think that’s the only reason that they’re able to stand next to each other today.
You said you were surprised when you worked directly with them and found out how their relationships really worked. What was the biggest surprise for you? What was the thing that most sparked you to want to tell their story?
First of all, I didn’t realize Ronnie DeVoe’s role in the group, in the dynamic of the group. I didn’t realize the power that Ronnie has in that group. Then, when I found out all of the things that Ricky went through and his role in the group, it really kind of made me think… We knew that Bobby’s an attractive character. We knew Ralph is an attractive character. You knew Mike Bivins was an attractive character. I think when I found out Johnny, Ronnie, and Ricky’s roles in the group and their dynamics in the relationship between the six as a collective, that’s when I really felt like, “OK, now we really have a movie.” I consider myself definitely a fan and somebody who knows as much about them as anybody else, but I didn’t know any of that. That made me think, “We definitely have a movie,” because when we get into those parts, people will really be blown away.
All the cast members have talked about a boot camp they attended before filming, to learn all the songs and dances for New Edition’s music. It sounds grueling. Were you there, too?
I was there every day. We called it the Bunker. We got this office with no windows in Tarzana. They were in the warehouse part of the Bunker, and it was just really uncomfortable. That’s where they rehearsed all day. It was rough on them, but the purpose of it was also to make them become a group, make them become a unit without having to say, “You guys need to become best friends.” But that’s what happened.
Before we went into production, I ran into [director] Gary Gray, and we talked about Straight Outta Compton, and he said that he did things in the development of that movie. He would call a meeting with the cast, and then he wouldn’t show up or he’d show up four hours late to make them get to know each other and bond and just become a group. I called [New Edition Story director] Chris Robinson, and I was like, “We have to make these guys miserable. We’ve got to put them all together, and they can hate us, but they’ve got to become best friends, so we’ve got to figure that out.” That’s what Gary did with Straight Outta Compton, and we want to be on that level.
A bit of the boot camp footage is on the BET website, and it’s fun to see the kid actors, the adult actors, and the actual group members together. Will you include that boot camp footage on a DVD release, or maybe air it on BET eventually?
It’s incredible footage, and I hope that BET does put it all out. You get to see all the guys. Mike working with Bryshere [who plays adult Bivins]… Brooke Payne taught them all the choreography, the guy who created it all and has been not just their manager, but really like a father to all of them. He kind of became a father to our cast, too. He’s working with them and teaching them the choreography, but then to have the real guys come in and say, “Yes, that is the choreography, but this is the way I twist my hand. This is the way I snap my fingers. This is how I roll my shoulder…” It’s all of those little, subtle details that the cast got from the group members, and that is what really makes that choreography hold up.
You just mentioned Brooke Payne. As you said, he named the group, he managed them, he is the choreographer, and his priority was always what was best for them, which was definitely not true of all their adult business colleagues. He is incredibly important in their history, but probably a lot, maybe even most, fans have no idea about all that.
Look, I don’t think there’s a New Edition without Brooke Payne. He is the seventh member. He has been with them through everything. He’s taken a lot of falls, and he’s still stuck with those guys. He held true to his promise, which was to teach them to be professionals. It was never about the star thing with him. He was just going to teach them to be the best men that they can be, and that’s really what he accomplished. I think it’s because of him, why they still come back together, because he taught them they’re strongest when they’re the six. The brotherhood is above everything.
The cast had to learn all these songs and dance routines, and they recorded all the songs we hear in the miniseries. The scope of the project is impressive. Did it feel like you were producing a movie, a concert tour, and an album all at once?
We were just really trying to fit everything in. Chris and I and Valerie Sharp, who is a co-producer on the film and handled the production, really helped us try to accomplish everything. We’re spanning a huge amount of time, and you’re seeing New Edition’s growth not only as people, you’re seeing them go from kids to adults, but you see them start out performing with no production. Then, they get a [stage backdrop]. Then, they’re performing in arenas. We really tried to show their growth, which meant that that’s a lot of different platforms. It’s music videos, it’s album covers. We tried to get everything in there. Basically, in the opening sequence, I don’t know if you noticed, but it goes from vinyl to tape to CD. We take you through the music, in the order the music was released in. That kind of takes you through the timeline of the film.
You end the movie with a re-creation of New Edition’s mini-concert-length performance from the BET 25th anniversary special. Given that that’s where the idea for the movie sparked for you, was that important to you to end it there?
We decided to end it there because New Edition, to this day, they’re still out there performing. They’re still great performers. They’re the strongest when they’re onstage. It’s kind of a theme in the film, an underlying theme, that there can be chaos backstage, but when it’s time to line up, it’s time to line up. They deliver on that. To end on that big performance, we were trying to, in 11 minutes or however long it is, take you back through the film, and take you through all of the records that you love, and kind of remind you of the journey that these guys have traveled so that they can all stand there, the six of them, together. It was more about a concert that really happened that had the six there, and the six of them standing in a triumphant point of view.
One of the first things I did after watching the miniseries was fill in any music my collection was missing from New Edition, Bell Biv DeVoe, and the group members’ solo albums. Do you expect they’ll see a boost in record sales and concert ticket sales after the movie?
I think so. I hope so. I hope the fans buy the music again. From [fan] screenings, I’m seeing more and more kids at these screenings, and they love the music, so I think they may get new fans, kids that love the music. I remember when I was a kid, La Bamba came out, and I remember that became the only song we were listening to all day.
New Edition’s music is timeless. It’s so infectious, still great pop, R&B music.
Oh, yeah. “Candy Girl,” “Can You Stand the Rain,” “If It Isn’t Love,” they’re just fun. They’re fun records. If you listen to what Bruno Mars is doing right now, that sound is coming back.
The New Edition Story airs Jan. 24, 25, and 26 at 9 p.m. on BET.