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BET’s ‘New Edition Story’ biopic doesn’t sugarcoat history

"The New Edition Story," 10 years in the making, airs Jan. 24-26 on BET. Photo Credit: BET / Bennett Raglin

The New Edition story has always been a movie waiting to happen.

As teen sensations in the ’80s, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins. Bobby Brown, Ronnie DeVoe and Ralph Tresvant moved from the housing projects of Boston straight to the top of the R&B charts with irresistible pop confections like “Candy Girl” and “Mr. Telephone Man.” Throw in the messy breakups and reunions and hiatuses and the unexpected addition of Johnny Gill, and the tale has all the makings of must-see TV.

“The New Edition Story,” a six-hour biopic that starts its three-night run Jan. 24 on BET, captures all of that and more in a project that took more than a decade to put together.

Jesse Collins, “The New Edition Story” executive producer, says he got the idea for the project after working with the group for BET’s 25th anniversary show in 2005.

“I grew up a fan just like everyone else,” says Collins, president and chief executive of Jesse Collins Entertainment. “But I got an idea of how the group really worked with that show. There wasn’t a buffer. There was no label exec. I worked with them directly and saw that how that group really works is not what anyone really thinks.”

Collins says he called Bivins the morning after the show and asked if he could tell their story. But not everyone was sold on the idea right away.

“They were very cautious,” Collins says. “They only get one shot at doing this and it was about finding the right script, the right producer and the right time to put their business in the street. They wanted to tell the real story of their relationship. They didn’t want to sugarcoat it.”

And they didn’t. “The New Edition Story” even starts with one of the group’s low points, an onstage brawl between Brown and his entourage and other members of New Edition. The biopic frankly addresses problems of drug use, unsuccessful marriages and the dark side of the music business, where some acts, especially young ones, hit the top of the charts without getting any significant money.

Collins says he kept working on the project, watching other stories like N.W.A.’s success in “Straight Outta Compton” being told, which helped convinced the group. All six members of New Edition, as well as their producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and Babyface, were all part of the project.

“Bobby was the last one to sign on,” Collins says. “When he came on, we went straight into it.”

Along with director Chris Robinson, they quickly assembled a cast that included Bryshere Y. Gray (“Empire”) as Bivins and singer Luke James as Gill. Algee Smith, who will play the lead in Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming movie about the Detroit riots, plays Tresvant, who was seen as the group’s lead singer.

Smith says the singing and dancing in the movie, which re-creates both New Edition’s choreography and iconic videos to exacting detail, wasn’t the toughest part of the project. It was knowing that Tresvant would see his performance.

“That made it a hundred times harder,” Smith says. “I just wanted to be as smooth as he was. I wanted to make him proud.”

He also wanted to help explain what happened with the group. “I want people to see the sacrifices that [Tresvant] made,” Smith says. “It was New Edition against the corrupt business, and they came through it. They all stayed as brothers.”

“The New Edition Story” plays up that major theme, as well as smaller details for fans to obsess over. The photo shoots to re-create the group’s album covers offer behind-the-scenes reasons as to why they ended up looking the way they did. And yes, there is a moment when we see Brown’s late wife Whitney Houston at a wedding, but only from behind and in passing, so as not to disrupt the story. (Strong Island hip-hop fans will enjoy Bivins wearing an Eric B. & Rakim jacket at one point, as well as hits from De La Soul and Busta Rhymes providing the soundtrack for key moments.)

New Edition’s members say they are pleased with what they have seen of the project. A screening at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills in December made a believer out of Brown.

“I was sitting in the chair over here and got a little crying on,” Brown said during a Q&A after the screening. “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.”

WHAT “The New Edition Story”

WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Jan. 24-26 on BET

NEWER EDITIONS

The New Edition breakups and reunions created a slew of solo acts and side projects that became just as successful or more than the original group.

Here’s a look:

BOBBY BROWN

BIO After his split with New Edition, Brown went solo and became a superstar, then magnified his success when he married the late Whitney Houston.

BIGGEST HIT “My Prerogative” (No. 1, 1 week, 1989)

CURRENTLY On tour

BELL, BIV, DeVOE

BIO The core of New Edition — Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe — formed their group at the urging of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They also teamed up with Roosevelt’s Hank and Keith Shocklee, who produced the hit “B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me).”

BIGGEST HIT “Poison” (No. 3, 1990)

CURRENTLY Readying their new album “Three Stripes,” their first album since 2001, for release on Jan. 27.

RALPH TRESVANT

BIO Seen as New Edition’s lead singer, Tresvant, with his distinctive Michael Jackson-esque vocals, went solo after the group’s “Heart Break” and racked up a string of R&B hits.

BIGGEST HIT “Sensitivity” (No. 4, 1991)

CURRENTLY On tour

JOHNNY GILL

BIO A solo singer before joining New Edition for their “Heart Break” album, Gill’s career got a boost from that short stint with the group, which also recast him as an R&B leading man rather than the sweet teen boy paired with Stacy Lattisaw early in his career.

BIGGEST HIT “Rub You the Right Way” (No. 3, 1990)

CURRENTLY On tour

— GLENN GAMBOA

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