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'Menudo: Forever Young' follows the rise and fall of the Puerto Rican boy band

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Menudo, the Puerto Rican boy band that rose to fame in the late '70s and gained international stardom well into the '90s, is the subject of a new HBO Max docuseries. "Menudo: Forever Young" details the rise, fall and controversy surrounding the group.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLARIDAD")

MENUDO: (Singing in Spanish).

RASCOE: Film critic Monica Castillo joins us now to discuss. Welcome to the program.

MONICA CASTILLO: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So let's back up a little bit for people who may not know. Like, there was a very particular formula behind Menudo that helped them become and stay popular. Tell us a little bit about that.

CASTILLO: Sure. So starting in the late 1970s, Menudo was this boy band that burst onto the scene in Puerto Rico and quickly gained a huge audience in Latin America, crossed over to the U.S. And then, as we see in the documentary, it earns international fame, a feat that had not been done before by basically many other bands from Latin America, let alone Puerto Rico specifically. They had a formula where after certain members would age, you know, past the teen years, their voices would change or so, they were quietly shuffled out, and they would introduce new members who were younger. And they kind of kept that forever young feeling and, you know, focused very directly on getting the attention of a teen fan base.

RASCOE: And, you know, let's talk about Edgardo Diaz because he was the man behind the machine. And he seemed to be - or is in the documentary shown as a very kind of ruthless businessman. Parents had to sign over full custody of their kids to him once they joined the band. We should note, he declined to comment or be interviewed for this series. But can you talk about - you know, when you have that sort of power, a lot of times it comes along with some not very good things.

CASTILLO: I think it's important to note that there was no oversight. Whatever Edgardo said kind of went. And we see what that power, unchecked, could do and did do to some of these young boys. And it's heartbreaking - it really is. You know, even small stories of, you know, one of the guys mentioning that his mom was saying, oh, you know, you're joining the band in January and I won't see you until December. That's it. Santa Claus is over. Or other moments where, like, some of the kids get in really mortal physical danger, and he's just there for business. He's not there to comfort them. He's not there to take care of them as children. That's really heartbreaking, and it clearly has an effect on them. Now, as grown men telling these stories, they're clearly still hurt. I don't think a lot of fans knew the extent of which, you know, bad things happened behind the scenes.

RASCOE: Yeah. And there are accusations of sexual abuse, mental abuse, physical abuse. I mean, there are serious accusations. To me, it also seemed like part of this is that that was a time where especially allegations of abuse were often swept under the rug, not that that doesn't happen now, but especially back then. There was this idea that, oh, they're just out for money - this victim blaming and all of this that, you know, this isn't really happening. Like, this not wanting to believe, right?

CASTILLO: Yeah. And the doc series does a really phenomenal job exploring all the different reasons, both culturally, you know, and everything behind that, to explain why it was such a big deal for Ralphy Rodriguez to step forward and say, hey, these things happened. They weren't right. And I think that Edgardo shouldn't be in charge of child performers anymore. He was one of the members of Menudo who, you know, was very public and went on a few journalism shows to be interviewed. His dad would accompany him and also talked about what he saw on the road and the behavior that was unacceptable.

I think the documentary is quite remarkable in the fact that, yes, it celebrates the nostalgia of this group and what it accomplished because, you know, it broke barriers. It was, you know, one of the first big boy bands to really cross over. You know, before NSYNC, before Backstreet Boys, before New Edition, before New Kids On The Block, it was Menudo - but also create space for the experiences of their members. And one of their members, Johnny Lozada, summed it up very nicely in saying not all the experiences in the group were the same, but that doesn't mean the other stories are any less valid.

RASCOE: And I guess, can you talk a little bit about - musically, do you think that they had an impact on, you know, Latin pop culture on - obviously, they had a really big star that came out of them, Ricky Martin.

CASTILLO: Oh, yes.

RASCOE: But what do you think their impact is musically on pop culture?

CASTILLO: The documentary also covers this and does a really good job of explaining how, you know, back then, at that time, in that late '70s, early '80s Menudo heyday, there wasn't too many Latin pop groups or Latin rock groups that were selling out stadiums in Latin America, even. And it wasn't until Menudo fever kind of hit the ground running that, you know, it opened the door for so many other acts. So there is, like, a way that you can connect, you know, the popularity of a group like Menudo to another current Puerto Rican artist who is selling out, you know, multiple stadiums night after night, like Bad Bunny.

RASCOE: So it's like, you know, setting the tone because you got to have a first to do it, right? And then they opened doors for others, right?

CASTILLO: Yeah. And I think it's also something about being able to listen to music in a language that you connect with. And there is a connection, as well, that the - a few people in the documentary make that a lot of English-language media didn't know what to do with Menudo fever. And they connected it to, like, it's another Beatlemania. It was that frenetic. It was that exciting and energetic. They had never seen anything like it before. And for the Spanish language, which is interesting considering, at that time, there was also the salsa wave going on. But that was seen more as, like, a grown-up kind of music. And then this one was something, like, the whole family could enjoy.

RASCOE: That's film critic Monica Castillo. Thank you so much for joining us.

CASTILLO: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUBETE A MI MOTO")

MENUDO: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.
Fernando Narro Roman