They've Lost That MMMBop Feeling
By PETER GERSTENZANG/The New York Times
The pop-rock trio Hanson is finally breaking through to a grown-up audience. All it had to do was split up with a record company and go to college.
On the group's recently concluded concert tour, the band of brothers best known for the 90's hit "MMMBop" played several universities and screened its raw documentary, "Strong Enough to Break," which depicts its tribulations with its former record label, Island/Def Jam. Think of it as Hanson's version of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," the documentary that brought the band Wilco's tribulations to a whole new audience. Except the Hanson boys come across as well-adjusted young men, not moody artistes.
When filming began, in 2001, the plan was to document the recording of the group's third CD and a tour, said the film's director, Ashley Greyson. "I thought it would be a few months of shooting," Mr. Greyson said by phone from Broken Arrow, Okla., his hometown. Instead the film took four years.
Though "Strong Enough to Break," named after a Hanson song, shows the band writing and playing adult music (and collaborating with more established musicians, like Matthew Sweet), Mr. Greyson said, it also shows the musicians coping with suggestions from Jeff Fenster, an A&R representative for Island/Def Jam. In many scenes the brothers, including the youngest, Zac, are huddled around phones as Mr. Fenster hems and haws about the group's songs and says things like, "You don't have an album."
"He's not a bad guy," Mr. Greyson said, "but he does seem to play the role of the Devil in the film."
Mr. Fenster could not be reached for comment, while Island/Def Jam had no comment.
Taylor Hanson, 22, the family's middle son and the group's keyboardist and lead singer, said he was not angry about the company or the system, just bewildered. "The business used to be about labels grooming artists they believed in, over a long period," he said by phone from Tulsa, Okla., his hometown. "Like they once did with, say, Bob Dylan. Now, you have people at record companies who don't know how to do the jobs they're supposed to do. They really don't know much about music; they're just trying to not get fired."
Since filming, the group has had reason to be more optimistic. The movie hasn't had a theatrical release, but it has been well received. New York University and the University of Southern California, Mr. Greyson's alma mater, have made the documentary part of their music-business curricula. Then there's the CD, "Underneath," which has sold 250,000 units on the band's own label, 3CG, since it came out in 2004. Finally, there's Mr. Sweet himself, who said he liked the young Hanson and who now gives the maturing band his imprimatur.
"They're eager to learn, whether it's about songwriting, or great bands like Big Star or the Velvet Underground," Mr. Sweet said, adding later, "The best compliment I can give them is this: In 30 years' time, they're still going to be around."