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‘Behind the Music’ Turns Five

August 23, 2002

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NEW YORK (AP) _ After spending five years chronicling the rise, fall, and redemption of rock’s biggest and wackiest stars, ``Behind the Music″ narrator Jim Forbes admits there are some phrases he gets sick of repeating.

No, it’s not the now famous line about hitting ``rock bottom.″

``You know the line that’s always bugged me? ’He or she was only X years old when he or she died,‴ Forbes says with a laugh. ``Well, you always want to live longer.

``I fight so hard not to become a caricature of myself, and not to become a cliche, and to deliver those lines with sincerity.″

Despite _ or perhaps because of _ its sometimes predictable formula, the VH1 biography series has become one of television’s most copied and parodied shows.

‘``Behind the Music’ in five years has already managed to make it to `The Simpsons.′ Need we say more?″ said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. The animated show won an Emmy for its satire episode, ``The Simpsons: Behind the Laughter.″

Not only is ``Behind the Music″ VH1′s longest running show, it is also the low-rated network’s most consistent ratings grabber; it’s currently running neck-and-neck with another biography show, ``Driven,″ as VH1′s most popular program.

Next week, the channel celebrates ``Behind the Music’s″ five-year anniversary with a marathon including some of its most popular and notorious episodes, hosted by the comedian Cedric the Entertainer.

There’s Shania Twain’s tearful account of her parents’ deaths; MC Hammer’s account of his fall from stardom to bankruptcy; and Leif Garrett’s awkward reunion with the friend paralyzed in an accident Garrett caused.

``It’s exploitation reality TV,″ Garrett says somewhat derisively. Yet he admits that his ``Behind the Music″ episode helped rekindle interest in his forgotten musical career.

``The timing was really good, so it did help for sure getting people to see what I am doing now.″

Although ``Behind the Music″ has profiled stars such as Twain, Faith Hill and Madonna, it got its start profiling those whose luster had dimmed. The show’s first subject was Milli Vanilli, the pop duo disgraced for lip-syncing to other people’s voices.

The series ``came out of questions that were asked like, ’What ever happened to Milli Vanilli?‴ says George Moll, its executive producer. ``We didn’t know exactly what the show was going to be, but we thought that there was a good documentary.″

The caveat was that the subjects had to cooperate and be willing to delve into uncomfortable topics. Fabrice Moran of Milli Vanilli, trying to put the scandal behind him, wasn’t sure he wanted to go into it again.

``After a while, I think I felt comfortable enough to do it ... and we came to realize that maybe it would be a good thing. It would be the first interview all by myself,″ said Moran. ``A week after, the people on the streets were like, ‘Hey man, keep doing your thing,’ very supportive.″

Getting faded stars to reveal intimate secrets wasn’t that difficult. Persuading successful stars like Sean ``P. Diddy″ Combs or Lenny Kravitz to delve into the messier aspects of their lives was more of a challenge, says Moll.

``When we first started out, we went to artists who would give us great access ... and a lot of those acts were well beyond their prime,″ he says. ``It took some time to get people like Madonna, Cher and people like that on board.″

Still, among the most popular ``Behind the Music″ episodes are those featuring C-list stars, such as David Cassidy, the Monkees and MC Hammer.

``If you lift the celebrity element out of the story, is it still a great human drama,″ Moll says.

And that makes good television, says Thompson.

``As a professor and an academic, I would have no problem assigning several `Behind the Music’ episodes to students, putting them on reserve at the library,″ he says. ``It’s a step or two higher than the average ‘Where-are-they-now’ documentary.″

Since ``Behind the Music″ first aired in 1997, biography series have proliferated: Lifetime’s ``Intimate Portrait″ and MTV’s ``Diary,″ among others.

But Moll says ``Behind the Music″ is more revealing than many.

``There’s a lot of stories that had never been told before ... we even had band members say, ’I never knew that happened to my bandmate!‴

Over the past few years, the show has shifted from older, baby-boom performers to more contemporary acts; among recent subjects are Aaliyah, Dr. Dre and No Doubt.

But don’t expect an ’N Sync or Britney Spears edition anytime soon.

``It’s hard to do a story on an artist who’s 20 years old and who has two records and grew up in the suburbs,″ Moll says.

``But I’ll do Eminem in a heartbeat. It’s about the backstory.″


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