New Edition is one of the most revered singing groups of all time. With a career that has spanned well over thirty years, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe, Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, and Johnny Gill have provided the soundtracks to many of our lives. It goes without saying then, that any biopic depicting these living legends (whom we’ve come to know as intimately as if they were our close friends) has astronomical expectations.
Recently, we’ve seen some unfortunate depictions of some of our late legends lives on screen. However, Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, the cast of Straight Outta Compton, as well as Angela Bassett’s depiction of Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It? remain some of the most riveting biopics in cinematic history.
BET’s three-part miniseries depicting the acclaimed R&B group hopes to stand with the greats. At the Urbanworld Film Festival this past weekend, EBONY.com got a sneak preview of the highly anticipated miniseries.
With real-life New Edition members serving as consultants and co-producers on the film, the miniseries is a vibrant time capsule from a group that has helped shape music history. Beginning in the Boston Orchard Park Projects in 1978, BET and Urbanworld presented clips leading up to the groups disastrous 1997 Home Again Tour.
The miniseries’ spot on casting includes Bryshere Y. Gray as Michael Bivins, Elijah Kelley as Ricky Bell, singer-songwriter Luke James as Johnny Gill, Algee Smith as Ralph Tresvant, Keith Powers as Ronnie DeVoe, and Woody McClain as Bobby Brown.
After screening clips from The New Edition Story, director Chris Robinson (ATL), executive producer, Jesse Collins, BET’s President of Programming Stephen Hill, New Edition’s long-time manager Brooke Payne, Bryshere Y. Gray, Elijah Kelley, Luke James, Keith Powers, Woody McClain, Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell and Ronnie DeVoe sat down to chat with moderator Marc Lamont Hill about the experience, and what we can expect when The New Edition Story premieres on BET in January.
Marc Lamont Hill: Chris, what motivated you to even want to do a project like this?
Chris Robinson: For me, New Edition was my first concert, so I’ve rocked with these guys since then. I met Jesse Collins over ten years ago, and he told me about this project that he was putting together for New Edition. I was like, “Word?! Let’s do it, consider me.” That was before I did ATL, so I’m sure he was like, “yeah whatever.” Ten years later he reached out, Stephen [Hill] reached out and they could barely get it out of their mouths before I said, “Yes, I’m in.”
Marc Lamont Hill: Jesse, how did you know you wanted Chris for this project?
Jesse Collins: What Chris can do visually; makes the most basic scenes look incredible. I knew we needed a director that could come in and bring a style to this film because we knew we could not mess this up. Black Twitter will kill us! So we had to make sure we covered all bases and obviously the director is one of the most important pieces. We wanted someone who knew how to work fast, who could make something look amazing, and Chris is that guy.
Marc Lamont Hill: Stephen, why was it so important for you to tell this story?
Stephen Hill: It’s important to tell this story because it’s a story of Black men sticking together through thick and thin for over thirty plus years. Their music just means something. It involves people who had posters in their rooms; it’s a real Shakespearean story of love, of loss, of betrayal and of great music and art. So it’s something we knew we had to get right. We also had the guys on board, and the guys weren’t going to let us get it wrong. We had several meetings in several different cities about how we were going to get it right. It was not a breeze but it was destined to be right.
Marc Lamont Hill: Chris, what was the toughest part about making this film?
Robinson: It’s filmmaking, so as many dreams as you have or whatever vision you have must fit into functionality. We told a story that spans from 1978 to 2005 and we told that story in six weeks. I always equate things to sports, in order to win a Super Bowl; everything has to be right at the organization. From the popcorn man to the head coach, everything has to be on point and these actors were amazing. It was not only amazing performances, I also watched them in the process of six weeks learning every dance move from the original creator, Brooke Payne. I watched these guys twist their ankles and tear their muscles, and I’d call them in on the weekend to sit around so we could go over character and script. So, these guys were dedicated, they were working seven days a week and they went all the way in. It’s difficult to make a mediocre film; it’s really hard to make a great film.
Marc Lamont Hill: It’s one thing to play an abstract character, but it’s another thing to play these living legends with everyone watching you. What was the mental preparation like for you?
Woody McClain: These guys have been doing this for over thirty years, so for us to come in and have a month to get the same chemistry they’ve been having forever was the hardest thing to do. We would call each other, Luke [James] would drag us to his apartment at three o’clock in the morning, but it was good to be with these brothers and work on this project.
Luke James: First and foremost, it’s an absolute honor to be able to portray such iconic figures in the Black community period, especially because by the grace of God these dudes are still alive and doing it. Individually, we also all had conversations with them.
Keith Powers: I remember just talking to Ronnie because he’s just the most effortless dancer, and that was nerve wrecking for me. I remember he would just be like, “Yea, yea do that move just like, smoother.” I didn’t possess that smoothness. (Laughing) He’s had years of being that smooth. Mentally we had to just get there. Like Woody said, we would have conversations, I’m talking group chats, being at each other’s houses, we talked about everything, we watched video after video. Then we started getting into the competition aspects where I’m like, “Nah, Ronnie had the most girls.” So it was like we were really embodying them and falling in love with everything.
Elijah Kelley: Ricky had the most girls, that’s what ya’ll will find out! But it’s so funny, we were rehearsing one day and learning the choreography for “If It Isn’t Love” which is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in life. You think you can do it, but I assure you, you didn’t do it right. There was a move that I was trying to do, and I was asking Ricky for advice and he was just like, “You know what, do that, just be way cooler.” I was like man, all these years I thought I was cool and I was lukewarm as a mutha.” But just to go back and talk about these past thirty years and just understanding the professionalism, Brooke Payne was responsible for that. I mean if we did the choreography wrong, they would get up and do the choreography with us.
Marc Lamont Hill: For the cast, since your parents grew up in the era of New Edition, was there a lot of pressure from them as well?
Powers: Oh yes. My mom told me that she had Ronnie’s face on her purse growing up. And then I remember watching the BET 25th Anniversary and my dad was about to cry when “Can You Stand The Rain” came one. My parents are NE lifers so my mom was like, “You have to be smooth!” She don’t play so…”
Woody McClain: I think I was created off of “Candy Girl.” (Laughing)
James: For me as an only child, I didn’t have a lot of friends so I turned to music and Johnny Gill happened to be one of the artists that I turned to. I used to mimic Johnny when I was a kid.
Marc Lamont Hill: Bryshere, you’ve been really engaged in your role on Empire for the past few seasons. What was the contrast for you doing that role and this one?
Bryshere Y. Grey: Well, it was a lot of pressure. But Mike told me, if you’re going to play me then you have to stay with me for two weeks, so I did. I just watched him and tried to get his whole charisma down. Everything about him is stored in my brain. I tried to learn more about his family, his friends, his peers, I just tried to capture that essence of who he was back then. I talked to his mom too. And I have to just say this has been one of the best casts I’ve ever worked with. I’m just so honored to be working with Chris as well. But in terms of Michael Bivins, he’s the brains, it was just an honor to play him.
Marc Lamont Hill: Was it tougher playing a real life person versus a character that was written for you?
Grey: For me being on television every week, I just wanted to pick a character that you would step away from, where you wouldn’t see Hakeem. I wanted to make sure you would see Michael Bivins and New Edition. So I took it as a responsibility.
Marc Lamont Hill: For the legends, what was it like seeing yourselves up there?
Ronnie DeVoe: I was nervous as hell. Jesse about two and half weeks ago sat down with Rick, myself, Mike and my uncle [Brooke Payne] and he was able to show us two or three of the scenes, and it just felt like wow, those NE for lifers have been holding us down. This was just a passion for us, but they’ve been with us for the last thirty- plus years. So just sitting there it felt so surreal. A lot of times in life when a person’s story is told, they are not here to see it. So, like my grandmother would always say, “Let me smell my roses while I’m here!” So, I’m smelling the roses and it feels great.
Marc Lamont Hill: What was the memory that struck you all the most after viewing the scenes?
Ricky Bell: All of it for me. I had to hold back the tears, but the Betamax for sure. We were really that excited about five hundred dollars and a Betamax.
DeVoe: Yo, Bobby’s shorts were the funniest things I’ve seen in my life!
Marc Lamont Hill: Mike, let’s talk about the business because one of the things this film does is give the back story of what it means to come of age as an artist at a moment where five hundred dollars and a Betamax could get you to sign your life way.
Michael Bivins: I mean, five hundred in the eighties was like a thousand or ten thousand. You have to think that for us growing up, some of our parents had the “other money” or the food stamp money. Seeing green money, we were like we’re gonna buy a car, we’re gonna buy some furniture, we’re gonna buy a house. (Laughing) We didn’t know that we were thinking too far ahead and that we didn’t have enough money for all of that. You couldn’t tell us anything. What we did do that I think made us even closer was we all decided to by mopeds. You would see us riding through the projects and nobody messed with us. It was like they understood we were doing something for the projects.
In terms of the business, we were in a blur. We were just on the stage trying to sing, we didn’t really know what they were taking from us, and we didn’t care. We had a little money in our pocket and we just did what we did and we didn’t realize all of that other money was gone. As we started talking to each other and realizing, we were playing Madison Square Garden two times in one day; I mean that’s what the circus does. So it just set off a light. I just hope that hopefully, our story helps other groups come together. I hope that when this joint goes off people call each other.
Marc Lamont Hill: Brooke, what did you see in these guys that made you want to work with them?
Brooke Payne: The first thing I saw was their determination and the second thing for me was I knew I could help these kids in some way. I knew they would go in a different way than other kids because they had something they could do after school. That was more important to me than anything.
Marc Lamont Hill: Mr. Robinson, what surprised you about the audition process, was it difficult to find the essence of these six men?
Robinson: The audition process was interesting because the guys came together just like the group came together, one piece at a time. Bryshere was actually recommended by Michael Bivins’ wife. We knew Elijah Kelley could sing and dance, he’d just done The Wiz! We sat down with him, and as I was talking to him to try and convince him to be a part of this, he recommended Luke James for Johnny Gill. I heard about Woody, I looked at all of his crazy videos and then I met him. We actually brought on Keith for Ralph Tresvant, but Keith really wanted to play Ronnie Devoe. So it happened very organically, it happened how it was supposed to.
Kelley: Speaking of Ralph, Algee Smith killed it; he was like the quintessential Ralph Tresvant.
Collins: I really have to shout out Keith [Powers] because he was the last one to come in. These guys had been working together for about a week, and we still didn’t have Ronnie, so we were like, the guy who came in for Ralph, let’s just try it. He came in under so much pressure because Brooke was looking at him, we were already rehearsing and he just had to dance. We weren’t worried about the acting because we knew he could handle that. We tortured him and Woody because we let them go through boot camp for a week without telling them they had the roles.
Marc Lamont Hill: Stephen, what does New Edition mean to you and why?
Hill: I’ve said this before but, there is something special when you start early and you have a teenage fan base and then they have posters on the wall. Their fans bought two or three copies of one album. And back in the day, the album would come out but you would still go buy the single when the single came out. It was an energy that exists in that type of behavior that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
I believe that they are the last Black male group that became hot when they were young , and really understood what it means to be true to their fans. It’s a very great show wherever they go, whether that be individually or together. They can still do the dance moves and they make it look effortless, which is why Elijah thought he could do it, but he couldn’t! (Laughing) They bring showmanship, they bring class, they bring classic songs. They still do “Candy Girl”! It’s all about the fans.
The New Edition Story premieres on BET, January 24, 2017.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami