One major theme in this first episode of the three-night special is the importance of predecessors.
It’s been over a year in the making for BET’s highly anticipated film The New Edition Story , which depicts the journey of five young men from the projects of Roxbury, Boston into an iconic R&B group. Ahead of Tuesday's (Jan 24) premiere, there was a strategic roll-out of promotion, performances and interviews all tied to the film that stars some of Hollywood’s brightest Black actors. Trained by the actual members of New Edition and with music production from Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, there was no doubt the premiere was a must-watch moment.
The story immediately pulls us into the drama at an on-stage fight during the group's Boston “Home Again Tour” in 1987. Bobby Brown (Woody McClain) was going over his time while performing his biggest hit “My Prerogative," while his former New Edition members Ricky Bell (Elijah Kelley), Michael Bivins ((Bryshere Y. Gray)), and Ronnie DeVoe (Keith Powers)—who are now in the music group Bell Biv Devoe—are waiting stage-side. They decide to bum-rush the stage and perform their hit song “Poison," kicking Bobby off. Angry about the brash move, Bobby takes the first swing, erupting into a fight between the former group members, their posse and their bodyguards.
This moment of confusion and anger makes for the perfect segue to go back in time to 1981 when the men, then boys, first put the group together. Ricky, played by the talented Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things), was the catalyst for the group's formation. Already interested in singing, he brought on young Mike (Dante Hoagland) and Bobby (Tyler Marcel Williams), who from the jump were on stage impressing the ladies.
“You know that kid, Ralph?" Ricky asks Mike and Bobby when considering bringing on his schoolmate Ralph Tresvant (Jahi Di'Allo Winston).
“The one always doing kung fu?" Bobby responds.
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They find Ralph doing just that while trying to impress a girl. Ricky convinces Ralph to join after singing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons” for the girl and getting Ralph jealous enough to serenade her too. At that moment, the group is set. But the next challenge is to get a manager to train them for local talent shows.
For this, they call on Brooke Payne (Wood Harris), a well known music manager in the city. After jumping in front of his car and performing a Jackson Five song, the boys convince him to work with them, but his words on their first day of practice are pivotal: “I don’t know what they told you, but I don’t necessarily make stars,” a jheri curl-clad Wood Harris says as Brooke. “But if you put in hard work, I’ll make you into professionals.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
In addition to training them for endurance and teaching them the “Money Slide," he gives them their name, New Edition, a message about being the “next big thing coming out of Boston."
The boys win Roscoe’s Talent Night at the Strand Theatre, where they performed L.T.D.’s “Holding On." After doing a couple more shows, they then enter one hosted by music producer, Maurice Starr (Faizon Love). They perform The Jackson Five’s “Stop the Love," which impresses the crowd enough to give them second place for a chance to record a demo and sign a contract.
“In this business you learn more from listening than speaking,” Maurice says. He soon after suggests they add another member to be five in total, which is where Brooke’s nephew, Ronnie DeVoe comes in. As the now solidified New Edition group, they start recording and it becomes clear that Ralph is a strong vocal lead.
Ralph is approached by Maurice, who off the bat seems like a sleaze ball, to sign a solo deal. Although living check-to-check, he decides to only sign a contract if he’s with his group members. And thus begins the ultimate okie-doke.
The boys and their mothers sign a deal with a bonus of $500. They record “Candy Girl” and go on tour. By March 1983, their single is No.1 on the Billboard charts and beating out Michael Jackson. But with all the traveling and success, their families are still on food stamps.
After returning from London, the boys (who have now transitioned into the older actors) get a final check for a whopping $1.87— to be split five ways. The reason: “recoupable expenses," an all too familiar term reminiscent of the TLC and Pebbles controversy. A term that means they unknowingly paid for recording, promotion, tour fees and more, before seeing the money in hand.
And this is the exact moment the tide changes. They fire Brooke and Maurice and sign to MCA Records in 1984 through Gary Evans (Michael Rapaport), a music executive who offers a $1 million deal.
One major theme in this first episode of the three-night special is the importance of predecessors. As mentioned, before making their own original music, New Edition was inspired by The Jackson Five, Earth Wind & Fire, L.T.D. and many more all-male music groups. The work of these artists before them paved the way for their careers, making it a beautiful nod to the cyclical nature of arts in the Black community.
But we’re not gonna lie, we look forward to seeing the second drama-filled episode tonight at 9P/8C on BET.