Later during a boisterous post-screening panel discussion/Q&A, Brown -- who co-founded the Boston-bred boy group in the late '70s with Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronald DeVoe and Ralph Tresvant -- was asked for an overall critique by an audience member.
“I haven’t seen the whole film yet,” Brown said. “But from what I see, I’m amazed. These talented young guys did a great job at being us as young kids and then brought it all the way home. Chris [Robinson, the film’s director] brought everything out of all these actors to make it special. I was sitting in the chair over here and got a little crying on. Watching and being alive to be able to see what my life was and has become and where my life is going from this point on? It’s special, man. These kids put their hearts and souls into this, just like we put our hearts and souls into our lives.”
Moderated by actress Yvette Nicole Brown, who portrays Bivins’ mother Shirley in the biopic, the panel featured cast members Algee Smith (Tresvant), Bryshere Y. Gray (Bivins), Elijah Kelley (Bell), Keith Powers (DeVoe), Luke James (Johnny Gill, who later succeeded Brown in the group) and Woody McClain (Brown). Also joining the conversation were the biopic’s executive producer Jesse Collins and director Chris Robinson. Besides Brown, additional special guests included BET president of programming Stephen Hill, the film’s writer Abdul Williams, and several more cast members who play integral roles in the New Edition life story: Jahi Winston (young Tresvant), Tyler Williams (young Brown), Tank (the group’s MCA Records chief Jheryl Busby) and Wood Harris (manager/choreographer Brooke Payne).
“It’s like walking into a time machine,” noted another audience member of the first installment, which traces the group’s early start from 1978-1984. Among the intriguing anecdotes and revelations shared by the panelists:
The New Edition biopic was more than 10 years in the making: “It started at the 25th BET Awards,” recalled Collins. “I had worked with [the group] before, but it was the first time I saw the functional dysfunctional functional sides of the family, those six guys. But I watched them come together and put on one of the greatest performances we’ve ever had on a BET Awards show. We talked to the individual members and they said OK if you want to try it. I called Abdul who stepped up and wrote many drafts, many a free draft, without a deal until BET was ready to give it the greenlight.”
The pressure of being Bobby Brown: Said Harris, who as Brown performs the singer’s hit “My Prerogative" in the film’s opening sequence, “I love pressure. And I felt that pressure with him staring at my back as I was performing. But when I heard Bobby scream, ‘Yes, that’s Bobby,” I was like OK. He and I were in the studio for a week, working on his mannerisms, dancing, his walk -- and the tongue.”
Director Robinson has been a fan since he was 15: “New Edition was my first concert,” he said. “I was 15 and drove from Baltimore to Philadelphia with my permit when I shouldn’t have been driving. These guys [the original group] are alive, so everything we did -- the look and tone -- there had to be authenticity. Every single thing in this film is accurate. We got to really tell the story, starting with details about their childhoods and how they met.”
One of the big surprises in the film involves member Bell: “Ricky has a very serious downfall,” said Kelley of his real-life character. “I’m not going to tell you what type of downfall. It’s something that most NE lifers don’t even know about. He goes down in a very big way. Once you see that happen and when you see him now, you will know the undeniable force and power of God.”
The strongest takeaway for viewers: “Fans will discover a lot of things they didn’t know about New Edition,” offered Gray who also squeezed in a plug for his other TV gig. “Like who started the group, their problems with contracts and relationships. They’d do interviews and they’d be tarnished inside. They didn’t know what was next. So you all have to watch the movie, just like you’ve got to watch Empire.” The Fox series’ fall finale aired that same evening.
BET’s The New Edition Story will premiere as a three-night event on Jan. 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The day before, the group will receive its star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.