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The Grown-ass Jonas Brothers Are Somehow Poised to Be Bigger Than Ever

On the heels of their first no. 1 hit, the boy band return this week with a new album and Amazon documentary

Elias Stein/Getty Images

The best scene in Chasing Happiness, Amazon’s gently profound new documentary about the Jonas Brothers, is the boy band equivalent to Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” video. It aims for that gravitas, that pathos, that aura of wistful rebellion in the face of time’s inexorable march toward death, toward obliteration. The scene takes place in Wyckoff, New Jersey. And yes, it involves the Jonas Brothers.

Specifically, we’re on a suburban street outside the modest childhood home of Nick (the extra-hunky one), Joe (the extra-quirky one), and Kevin (the extra-brooding one). The Jonases are not allowed to film on the property itself, nor the property of the church two doors down, where their father, Kevin Sr., served as pastor until his then-teenage sons’ stratospheric (and secular) music career fouled things up in the mid-2000s. Chasing Happiness, released Tuesday, is on the one hand mere self-aggrandizing sponcon for the Jonas Brothers’ unlikely comeback, which will culminate Friday with the release of Happiness Begins, their fifth studio album and first in 10 years. (It has already generated the trio’s first-ever no. 1 single.) But the documentary radiates a winsome and bracingly sour sort of vulnerability throughout, a bittersweet nostalgia that leads, here amid their childhood stomping grounds, to a little Brotherly bickering.

Joe bounds out of the van that brought them all here and heads toward the house, unheeding. “Hold on, Joe,” Kevin yells. “Wait for the cameras.”

“They’ll follow,” Joe calls back, dismissive. “Come on.”

“They’re not even close to being ready,” Kevin protests. (Kevin and his wife, Danielle, starred in a polarizing 2012-13 reality show called Married to Jonas, which makes him an expert in this realm, if possibly only in this realm.)

“Whatever,” Joe retorts. “I want to see it, too—I’m not just here to, like, be filmed.”

The Jonases convene at the edge of the street and stare at their old house, striking, subconsciously or otherwise, a photo-shoot superhero pose suffused with grief, as though they’re paying their respects at a war memorial. The house looks exactly the same. “So trippy,” Joe marvels. “It’s at a complete standstill. Frozen in time.” The Brothers had written “Please Be Mine,” a tender ballad off their cult 2006 debut album, It’s About Time, right there in that front living room with the red curtain. “I mean, it’s even trippier because, like, nothing’s changed about the house at all,” Joe continues. “Feels like we would walk back in there and be 6 or 7 years old.”

By “cult album,” I mean that very few people bought It’s About Time, and the Jonas Brothers’ first record label, Columbia, dropped the band right around the time their father’s church dropped him. The boys, all in their late 20s or early 30s now, walk to that church and mill around at the edge of the lawn, reminiscing with aggrieved looks on their faces. “It was a humongous part of our life,” Nick had explained earlier, but their father was cast out, and now they can’t even walk in.

Thunder claps overhead. It starts raining. Everyone heads for the van but Joe, who for a few seconds just stands there, mesmerized and pissed.

“I mean it’s sort of perfect,” Nick notes in the van. How apt that even the sight of that house, and especially that church, would trigger foul weather. “Literally 30 minutes ago, we were crushing ice cream outside Dairy Queen in the sunlight.”

The ice cream, unfortunately, does not appear on camera. But you can almost taste it, almost sense it melting.

“It was fun when we were young,” goes the chorus of “Rollercoaster,” a falsetto-hooky new tune teased during the documentary’s opening moments. “But now we’re older.” The trio’s 2007 sophomore album, Jonas Brothers, blew up thanks to the Disney Channel, which played the peppy video for “Year 3000”—a cover of a song from the Brit pop-punk band Busted—practically on a loop. Cue the teen-idol megafame and everything that came with it. “I think my brothers and I became closest when we found a common ground beyond music and family,” Nick notes, pausing for dramatic effect. “Girls.”

But a great deal of self-doubt and internal conflict came, too, not to mention all that purity-ring-derived public mockery. The Jonas Brothers album rules, actually: think Mickey Mouse crowd-surfing at the Warped Tour. Their third record, 2008’s A Little Bit Longer, topped the Billboard album chart and kept the PG-rated party going. But next came 2009’s wayward Lines, Vines and Trying Times, which includes a collaboration with Common called “Don’t Charge Me for the Crime.” (This is not an official video.) Burnout, along with the lure of solo careers, was inevitable; the Jonas Brothers broke up in 2013 amid an abortive comeback bid. “People liked seeing us happy,” explains Nick, the band’s de facto leader and the guy who triggered the split. “And we were not happy.”

Cut to March 2019, and the Jonas Brothers’ first reunion single, the featherlight and lascivious “Sucker,” is the no. 1 song in America, sneaking atop the charts just before “Old Town Road” shows up to vaporize everyone. The video finds the Jonases cavorting with their also quite famous wives: Kevin and Danielle, Nick and Priyanka Chopra, Joe and the globally beloved Sophie Turner.

Like nearly all pop-star documentaries, Chasing Happiness has a familiar and pleasing rise-and-fall-and-rise arc from ungodly success to grim disillusionment to triumphant rebirth. With movies like this, it’s all down to how convincing the rebirth is. The Jonas Brothers are, at heart, a boy band, and thus a phenomenon that is explicitly not built to last, as even the Backstreet Boys will tell you. But given that the music industry is healthier now than it was in the mid-2000s, Nick, Joe, and Kevin have a legitimate shot at being bigger than ever, by the numbers and by the feels. What we’ve got here, in a turn of events as delightful as it is unprecedented, is a boy band poised to find its greatest success as brooding, grown-ass men. They are not just here to, like, be filmed. They also want, at long last, to be seen.

Yes, Chasing Happiness addresses Nick’s apparently transformative crush on Hannah Montana–era Miley Cyrus, who inspired the treacly-to-raucous 2008 JoBros jam “Lovebug.” (“I started writing about love,” Nick recalls, “and I actually knew what it felt like.”) No, it does not address Joe’s relationship with country-era Taylor Swift, which inspired a solid half-decade of Swift trolling the bejesus out of him.

You care about that stuff if you want. I, on the other hand, am just relieved we get footage of my single favorite Jonas Brothers performance, which takes place alongside Stevie Wonder at the 2009 Grammys, and consists of Nick yelling “C’MON, STEVIE!” and “SHOW ’EM WHAT YA GOT, STEVIE!” and so forth at Stevie as they lurch joyously from “Burnin’ Up” (a Jonas Brothers song) to “Superstition” (not a Jonas Brothers song). I love these goofy doofuses with all my heart.

The documentary, directed by longtime JoBros lead guitarist and music director John Lloyd Taylor, is at pains to convince you that the band’s initial rise was organic, and perilous, and hard-won. “People thought we were manufactured at Disney World,” Nick laments. That resistance to the idea of unearned overnight success is another pop-doc (and boy band) cliché, of course, but as the fellas recount their journey from empty mall food courts to packed theaters, from obscurity to 21st-century Beatlemania, from naivete to jaded disillusionment, you get a sense of them as real people. (Enough of a sense, at least, to where even the uninitiated will be able to tell them apart.)

Kevin, the moodiest Jonas, is the least aggressive and most compelling: There’s great homemade teenage footage of him in the tour van, calling up his future wife, Danielle, to tell her she’s on the guest list for that night’s show. “Say, ‘I’m so excited to see you,’” whispers Joe, who winces when Kevin awkwardly amends it to “I’m so excited for you to see tonight.” What a bunch of sweethearts.

The Jonas Brothers did their best work as cuddly pop-punk prodigies, even if that music was not quite reflective of who they actually were. “The label had a vision that we would be a punk rock band,” Nick recalls of the early days. “We were not a rock band at all.” And as the band got bigger—and, crucially, the boys themselves got older—those contradictions both heightened and darkened. Chasing Happiness includes lengthy present-day glimpses of the reunited trio bashing out their differences over glasses of whiskey, conducting an ominous and therapeutic self-Q&A that recalls the 2004 Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, still the best and most embarrassing movie about a real-life rock band ever made. What’s different is that the Jonases are willing to be a little more honest with themselves, or at least they’re more skilled at performing honesty.

Yes, post-breakup, Nick and Joe did a few shows billed as the Jonas Brothers, with Kevin nowhere in sight. Yes, Kevin’s still justifiably furious about that. “I think it’s because we felt you were holding us back,” Joe’s explanation begins, brutally, but it quickly softens to a more thoughtful rumination on having a good ol’ work-life balance: “It took me time to understand having someone in my life, that, I’ll do fuckin’ anything to see Sophie for an hour. All of those years, our first love was music, first love was the band. And so for me, as a teenager and a young adult, to see you prioritize everything but, was bad. It took me a long time to understand that. You found love very young.”

Kevin rolls his eyes and takes another drink. But he keeps listening. The fact that he’s the least famous Jonas (not counting youngest brother and “Bonus Jonas” Frankie, too young to be in the band or get more than a credit-scene cameo in the movie) makes his perspective the most valuable. Nick found mid-2010s solo success with a replacement-level softcore pop tune or two; Joe’s über-wacky side project DNCE fluked into the inescapable 2015 hit “Cake by the Ocean.” But Kevin’s still best known for the short-lived reality show his brothers clearly hated, and his rationale for the Jonas Brothers reunion, which involves his oldest daughter, is quietly heartbreaking: “Alena, she’s only heard music. She’s never seen Daddy onstage. Being able to see her in that audience see me do what I did best for so long? She knows me as her dad. She doesn’t know the person that was great.”

The question is how much of this thorny and vibrant personality will filter into Happiness Begins, the album. The early singles do a little better than replacement-level, but they’re still indistinct Spotify-core with a very modern pop-by-committee approach that can’t help but dilute the Jonas of it all. It’s all a little ahistorical. “Sucker” is cowritten by current industry hotshot Louis Bell and the maddeningly resilient Ryan Tedder, who executive produced the whole album and is now regarded as “the fifth Jonas Brother.” It’s enough, for now, that a reasonable person would rather hear “Sucker” on the radio than, say, Portugal the Man or Halsey or Khalid. But the doc convincingly makes the case that the world doesn’t need any more Jonas Brothers, as we haven’t yet fully grasped the complexity of the ones we’ve got.

Even agnostics are likely to give Happiness Begins a shot just to pinpoint the Priyanka songs, the Sophie songs, the Danielle songs. (Listen, plenty of people love her show, and her jewelry.) It is quite shocking to be rooting for these fellas a full decade after what their chosen genre firmly stipulates as their prime; it is continually fascinating to watch them try to be themselves and be successful at the same time. “The impact of falling in love,” Joe moons, “has made me want to be a better man, a better person, and maybe, ultimately, a better brother.” What a goofball sweetheart, even now. Rare among teen idols who’ve long since passed into adulthood, there is no time like the present.