By: Jacob Elyachar, jakes-take.com
Before One Direction, the Backstreet Boys, Boyz II Men, and the New Kids on the Block conquered the boyband genre; New Edition paved the way for their success.
Bobby Brown, Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, Travis Pettus, and Corey Rackley started the group in 1978 in Boston. However, their lives changed forever when they met Brooke Payne, who took the guys under his wings and trained them to be superstars. Eventually, Pettus and Rackley were dropped from the band and Ralph Tresvant and Payne’s nephew, Ronnie DeVoe, replaced them.
The quintet’s paths crossed with record producer Maurice Starr at a talent show, and they won a recording contract with Starr, and the quintet recorded their first studio album, Candy Girl, with Starr’s label: Streetwise Records. While the group had several hits such as the title track, “Cool It Now,” and “Mr. Telephone Man,” each of the group’s members only had $1.87 for their endeavors. The team left Starr’s label and signed a contract with the production company, Jump and Shoot, who had a deal with MCA Records. Under pressure from their label, the group voted out Brown in 1985. While Brown pursued a solo career, the group recruited singer Johnny Gill to join the group.
After seven studio albums, two successful side groups (Bell Biv DeVoe and Heads of States), and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (which the group will receive their star on January 23), BET will air a three-part biographical film, The New Edition Story, starting January 24. With the blessing of all six New Edition members, the three-part film will tell the whole story of the legendary boy band.
I had the privilege to talk to actors Elijah Kelley (Ricky Bell), Luke James (Johnny Gill), and Keith Powers (Ronnie DeVoe), who shared their thoughts about the filming process and how they overcame the challenges of New Edition boot camp, as they prepared to film the biopic.
Jacob Elyachar: Could you please describe The New Edition Story to my readers?
Elijah Kelley: The New Edition Story is a biopic chronicling one of the most legendary R&B groups of all-time. The film shows how they come together as teenagers from the Boston projects with nothing but a dream, a vision to be world renowned and to be successful in the music industry. The audience will meet Ralph Tresvant and learn that Bobby Brown was not as great as a performer as we thought when he was just starting out. All those experiences warp into the relationship that we have today through hardships, breakups, losses, death, and scandals. We find the brotherhood, and we show, seek and try to see the truth in what it takes to be resilient in the brotherhood when it is you against the world in the music industry.
JE: How did this film experience was similar or different from other projects?
Luke James: Both Elijah and Keith were attached to monumental films that are essential staples to black culture. Personally, this movie is essential because it is New Edition is our supergroup, and it was crucial to tell this story and be a part of this giant film.
JE: How did each of you prepare to portray your respective band member?
Keith Powers: I watched a lot of interviews just to get Ronnie’s vibe and his aura. Also, when I found out that he was the smoothest and most effortless dancer of the group, I had to make sure that I got down his rhythm. When Ronnie performs, he has a little bop, and I had to master that movement. I spent most of my downtime listening to New Edition and watching their performances. The production staff gave us these New Edition bibles and CDs. My CDs stayed in my Jeep throughout the filming process, and my friends got mad at me when they got into my car because they were listening to New Edition non-stop. I did not care because I wanted to learn everything about them. A project like this is the reason why we act. It required us to be researchers and become storytellers. I pulled all-nighters looking at interviews and dream about our dance moves in my sleep.
LJ: We all had a million opportunities to hang with our counterparts. All six members of New Edition produced this movie, and they were there when we needed anything throughout the creation process. If we had an issue with the story, we asked questions to them, and we could get the absolute truth from the guys. When your readers watch the film, they will be seeing real reactions such as Ricky losing his money. We could dive deep in the same way that Jamie Foxx used this method when he filmed Ray. He became Ray Charles through his meeting with him, looking at all the footage of him, and live as a blind person. Because of this acting method, we were then able to live like New Edition. We are still in this realm, and we have not stopped since the filming ceased. We are a band of brothers, and outside of New Edition, we are our own group, and are so happy and elated to celebrate the men who paved the way for many groups and brought us together.
JE: What were some of the challenges that you faced during the filming process? How did you overcome them?
EK: I sprained my Achilles’ heel learning the choreography boot camp, which we only had three weeks to learn it. We also had that same amount of time to create that kind of bond that was developed over the course of 30 years. Because of my injury, I was out of commission for four to five days. We were also learning two-to-three numbers a day, and everyone developed cramps. New Edition’s original choreographer, Brooke Payne, told us that if you cramped up, you had to drink mustard! It was the weirdest piece of advice that I have ever heard, but it worked.
LJ: Our director, Chris Robertson, along with Jesse Collins, the film’s producer, and Brooke Payne pulled a Jedi mind trick on us. As actors, we thought that we had the job, but when we came into the studio, we looked at the casting wall that had pictures of other actors who were also up for the roles. We had to make sure that we earned our place in the group! By doing that, we quickly became New Edition, and ever since filming wrapped, we have not lost that strong bond.
JE: What were some of your favorite New Edition songs that you performed in the movie?
KP: My favorite song that we performed was “You’re Not My Kind of Girl,” but my favorite song from the New Edition songbook is simply “Can You Stand the Rain.”
JE: “Can You Stand the Rain” was one of my favorite songs from the film. I believe that my readers will get chills when they watch that performance.
EK: Is that the song that gets your heart going?
JE: Yes, sir!
LJ: Then, you enjoyed my portrayal of Johnny Gill?
JE: Luke, I did enjoy your performance. I got goose bumps when you went into your vocal upper register.
LJ: Thank you! Thank you!
EK (jokingly): Oh my goodness! Did he pay you to say that?
JE (laughs): Elijah, he did not pay me to say that.
LJ: When the group filmed those songs, we wanted to give viewers who are the real New Edition fans the familiar incredible feeling. I want to give kudos to Chris Robinson and his production team for how they shot the film and to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who allowed for us to re-record their music properly. I also want to thank Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who coached us on performing those songs.
EK: Our experience was a singer’s dream come true. People sleep outside many recording studios to have a chance to work with Babyface, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis. Just by the blessing of being a part of this film, we had the opportunity to be in the studio with these impeccable legends.
JE: What were some of the best pieces of advice that New Edition gave you throughout the filming process?
KP: One piece of advice that Ronnie gave me was that “at the end of the day, you have it.” We could have done all the research we wanted to, but Ronnie and the others did not want us to lose our natural swag. They did not want us to transform into New Edition robots. We were already them, they wanted us to stay true to ourselves.
“The New Edition Story” premieres on Tuesday, January 24 only on BET.