The Jonas Brothers: It's full scream ahead
Reporting from New York -- How big are the Jonas Brothers? One day here last week, not knowing the cause, some floors of Rockefeller Center were evacuated when the floor shaking and screams of the lads' fans during a TV shoot sent trepidations through the tenants.
It's hard to capture just how raucous the teenage choir for the Jonas Brothers is. But here, earlier in the day, they are on the set of CBS' "The Early Show." Cameras have been set up outdoors on Fifth Avenue to allow a few hundred teenage girls to stand close when Nick, 16, Joe, 19, and Kevin, 21, promote their film that opened this weekend: "Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience."
The girls have been here for hours, their devotion such that many would have camped overnight had it not been for stinging winter winds whipping the city. Those who got here first are staked out along a long, waist-high barricade rail, and they're not giving an inch of real estate to their fellow females, now 10 and 20 rows deep and jostling for position. Outside of extra manpower for security, the television crew and a very few at-a-distance dads, there's not a male in sight.
But none of that matters now. The Jonas Brothers are here. You don't know because you see them. You know from all the pandemonium breaking loose, measured in decibels. Girls' screams. Followed by girls' heads bouncing, arms reaching, cellphone cameras flashing, and signs, flowers and presents thrust lovingly toward the boys.
During a frantic two-day ride-along with the teen pop phenom on the publicity tour for their film, it's like this at every stop.
Crisscrossing town in a three-black-SUV caravan from their base at the Trump International Hotel, the boys would appear on "Regis and Kelly," "The Early Show," "Good Morning America," Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, stop by an unveiling of their wax likenesses at Madame Tussauds, tape an MTV special, then be at the "Saturday Night Live" stages by late afternoon each day to rehearse the skits and songs they would perform there that weekend. As usual, they were extremely well behaved and extremely well dressed.
If that seems a lot, consider they are just coming off a sold-out concert tour on which their 3-D movie was made, are filming a Disney Channel series to premiere in May and were invited guests in the Obama White House on inauguration night -- after having been the Bushes' guests there just before leave-taking. They were jamming on stage with Stevie Wonder at the Grammys, where they were a best new artist nominee. They had just sold out an impromptu concert at Ryman Auditorium on their first visit to Nashville and were named "breakthrough artist" for the American Music Awards, where they also performed. They are the only artist to ever have three albums in the top 10 of SoundScan at the same time and the first artist to have six consecutive iTunes No. 1 tracks. All this while watching their current album, "A Little Bit Longer," reach 1.5 million.
Not bad for guys who hardly more than two years ago had a record that wouldn't sell and "were just four brothers [they have an 8-year-old brother, Frankie] in one bedroom," Kevin says to each talk show host.
The 200 teen girls chosen to be in the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center for the MTV taping know a lot about the Jonas Brothers. They know the wild reception the boys received at "The Early Show" that morning since they've been trading texts with the girls there. They know the time the Jonases left their hotel because the pod of girls camped there were texting as well. Then there are "the runners," the girls sprinting around Manhattan from one Jonas sighting to the next, keying into their phones as they go.
For the MTV opening scene, the band is hidden behind curtains as if anyone needed to build more angst and anticipation into these girls. When the boys are unveiled one by one, the resulting scream is so deafening, you can hardly hear one of them for all of them, and they are all saying the same thing, something like this: "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I can't believe it's them. They're so beautiful." Then, depending on which of the brothers is closest, "I love you, Kevin." "I love you, Joe." "I love you, Nick. . . ."
But all this adulation has caused a very real problem. For one thing, the production crew's members can't do their work because they can't hear one another even in their headsets. And then comes the building evacuation.
The Jonas Brothers' mom, Denise, 41, a former singer and sign language teacher, watches the scene from a monitor in the control room. She laughs each time she sees one of the boys having fun on camera, savoring it like a parent who has just seen her child score a soccer goal, except that for her it has been like watching all three of her sons score goals, every day for nearly two years now.
The boys stay remarkably composed through it all.Appreciative. Enjoying it. Beyond their music, another thing that has so endeared them to their fans -- and their fans' parents -- is that they genuinely seem to be the nicest young men you could imagine.
"I am always impressed at how well they hold themselves," Denise says. "I'm a crazy Italian, hands flying. I can't help it. I go crazy at their concerts. They are more like their dad that way."
On this tour careening around town, along with their father, Kevin Sr., 44, a former Christian minister and songwriter and musician who co-manages his sons, there's co-manager Phil McIntyre, the director of their production company, their stylist and her assistant, their photographer, three publicists, a teacher and at least five security men.
When offstage, Denise might be with the boys, whispering in their ears or adjusting Nick's collar. Kevin Sr. tends to stand back a bit, watching over it all as he quietly takes calls on his cellphone.
Still, "when they walked out at MTV, I choked up when the crowd exploded," said Kevin Sr. "That's normal for the boys, but it's never normal to Dad and Mom. They are really good kids. They are healthy. They are normal. Everywhere I go, before I leave, someone grabs me and says, 'I see it all, and they are so polite, so courteous, so thankful.' I hope we had something to do with that. But I'm really glad because it is still important to me that they are really good boys."
Life's an experience
The songs that the "Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience" covers are up-tempo to maintain the energy and frenzy and include most of their hits, such as "Burnin' Up," "Hold On" and "S.O.S." so the audience can sing along. The brothers are joined onstage for a song each by teen stars Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato.
"I wanted to put you not only in the first row of the concert but also literally on stage," says director Bruce Hendricks, at different times setting perspective as if you were a musician, a background singer or sharing a mike with one of the brothers. He does that amid all the lights, colors, backdrops and showmanship of a teen rock concert as Joe takes center-stage vocals and runs the ramps like a young Jagger, Kevin riffs close up on lead guitar and Nick moves with his vocals from guitar to drums -- all to the accompaniment of those screaming girls.
The film lets you rest between musical sets, cutting to behind-the-scenes passages of the rarefied world in which these three brothers now live. The most instructive is a drive with them into Times Square.
It seems the brothers had told their fans that after a Madison Square Garden concert last August, they would be in Times Square at midnight to be first to purchase their album "A Little Bit Longer" when it came on sale. As their car enters, they see Times Square is shut down by a crowd estimated at up to 25,000. "I've never seen a street crowd like it," says Hendricks. "I don't think they or anybody expected it, and you genuinely see the awe on the boy's faces. . . . I think they feel a little bit amazed by it all."
Box office expectations for the movie would have to be compared to Cyrus' "Best of Both Worlds" 3-D concert movie of last year, also directed by Hendricks, which earned $65 million after its one-week run was extended because of demand.
It wasn't always hyperventilating fans and nonstop press. They grew up in Wyckoff, N.J., "around great musicians within the Christian music world," says Kevin Sr. "They grew up in our van, Kevin, Joe and, for a while, Nick, traveling around" while he and Denise took Christian singing groups on the road.
"When Nick was 3, I noticed he had something special," he recalls. "This was me as a music instructor looking at a 3-year-old who could do things my college students couldn't do. About this same time, Nick came up to me and kind of looked up like he was trying to see in his head and he said, 'Do you hear that? Do you hear that music? It's always playing in my head.' "
Not long after, Kevin Sr. tried an experiment with Nick. Instead of a bedtime story, one night he put Nick to bed listening to Stevie Wonder's "Definitive Collection." "And from that night on, he begged every night for Stevie Wonder," says Kevin Sr.
With a voice equal to his musicality, Nick was "discovered" one day singing while his mother was getting her hair cut. Before he was 10, Nick had performed on Broadway in "Annie Get Your Gun," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Les Misérables" and soon signed a recording contract with Columbia Records, using Wonder's "Superstition" as his audition song.
Joe saw how much fun Nick was having, so he auditioned and at 12 was cast in Baz Luhrmann's "La Bohème." During that time, Kevin picked up the guitar and taught himself to play, and "it has never left his hands," says Kevin Sr. When Columbia heard their songwriting collaboration, it optioned Kevin and Joe into Nick's contract.
But the record company couldn't find the right platform to launch them. Nick's solo record was put on the shelf, and the brothers' first group album, after more than a dozen release date delays, came out in August 2006 and sold fewer than 15,000 copies.
Kevin Sr. thinks the problem was radio stations not knowing where to position the band. In any case, the group and Columbia agreed to part ways. The family's savings were gone, and the group was making ends meet selling T-shirts at gigs.
Then came a new record deal with Disney's Hollywood Records. Being a Disney company with all the Magic Kingdom has to offer, Hollywood Records could target the clean tween market that the Jonas Brothers' music fit and that Disney already ruled with the runaway success of Miley Cyrus. It also had Radio Disney to air the boys' songs and television, the Disney Channel, for their videos.
When Disney placed the Jonas Brothers as guest stars on Cyrus' "Hannah Montana," the show earned its highest rating. When the brothers were chosen to open for Cyrus on her wildly popular 2007 "Best of Both Worlds" tour, there could not have been a better promotional campaign.
Their "Jonas Brothers" record was released almost one year to the day after their previous album and has now sold 1.8 million copies worldwide.
Few regard them as music innovators, but critics have generally been kind. As Mikael Wood wrote in The Times, "They marry the high-energy crunch of today's emo acts to the blue-eyed R&B that has motored countless groups of young white men to boy-band success. That makes the songs on 'The Jonas Brothers' feel fresh and familiar at the same time."
When the Jonas Brothers' musical future was uncertain, "I never stopped believing it was real," says Kevin Sr. "I'm a songwriter. I'm a musician. And the biggest sign to me was that everywhere [the boys] went, the reaction was more intense that anything I had seen. Before there were smaller crowds. Today it's 20 or 30,000. But it was always the same reaction. Especially girls went crazy."
Always on the run
The 3-D movie opens with girls-chasing-them scenes in a light homage to the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night." The scene and their current publicity campaign raise the questions they well know: What's next for the band? A flash and then flameout like so many other heartthrob groups before? Will they be consumed by their own nonstop PR? Or will they endure?
They're certainly not slowing down. In addition to their upcoming Disney Channel series, look for a new studio album release this year, followed by a world concert tour.
Their supporters believe that what sets the Jonas Brothers apart from most of the rest of this category is: They write their own songs. They play their own instruments. They were discovered through their music and now write and produce music for others.
Performing with Stevie Wonder at the Grammys, playing "Superstition" again was a meaningful moment. Even more so when Wonder said "yes" to playing the Jonas Brothers' "Burnin' Up" with them there. He said he already had their song on his iPod.
Their father has a ministerial way of gauging these things. He knows their craft is evolving. "Musically it is yet to be decided. Time will tell whether or not their music will last. But I know what is there and they are capable of. I feel like there is a lot more there," says Kevin Sr.
Then he adds: "They know the journey can be short or it can be long. The odds are, in their world that it is short-lived. . . . But enjoy this and really appreciate the people that are making this possible for them. Be good boys in it but enjoy the journey because it doesn't happen often."
-Sean Patrick Reily
Related: Jonas Brothers: Life in pictures
AAAAAAHH! Top, the brothers — from left, Kevin, Joe and Nick — go outdoors with “The Early Show."
CLOSE ENCOUNTER: A select group of fans occupy prime real estate as the Jonas Brothers leave their building-rattling MTV taping in Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room.
Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times
The above story will appear in the Times' Sunday Calendar.