Film Review: ‘Breaking a Monster’

breaking-a-monster-unlocking-the-truth
Image Courtesy of SXSW Film Festival

Teenage African-American heavy metal trio Unlocking the Truth take their first steps toward stardom in Luke Meyer's entertaining docu.

Speed-metal band Unlocking the Truth have attracted a fair amount of attention (without releasing an album yet) by virtue of their novelty as three very young African-American lads playing a musical form whose audience is almost entirely white. Shot when the trio was just entering adolescence, “Breaking a Monster” charts a few hectic months when they went from being You Tube phenoms to clients of a 70-year-old industry manager who gets them a contract with megacorporation Sony Entertainment. What makes Luke Meyer’s documentary interesting isn’t so much the music or even the incipient stardom, but rather the push-pull between high-stakes biz pressure and subjects who — being 13 years old or so — hardly have the attention spans for the drudgery and minutiae a “career” requires. Beyond fest play, the pic’s prospects are likely to be modest until (and if) the band has a commercial breakthrough.

Guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse, bassist Alec Atkins and drummer Jarad Dawkins began playing when they were in grade school. After a video of the Brooklynites performing on a Times Square street corner got posted on You Tube, they began attracting much more attention, including from Alan Sacks, a veteran bizzer who co-created the ’70s sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” and has produced numerous TV movies, particularly for Disney.

It’s an odd match in many ways, with Sacks very much an old-school L.A. industry type who flatters and cajoles his young charges with varying success — if his natural habitat is the executive suite, theirs is the skate park. (The latter is in fact a bone of contention, since a skateboarding accident could all too easily damage his investment for weeks or months on end.) Moody Malcolm and his band mates are talented and ambitious, and love playing music. But all the other rigamarole that comes with forging a career — particularly once they sign the Sony contract that Sacks has wrangled for them — they find boring and annoying. “I’m too young for responsibility,” Brickhouse snaps at one point, quite reasonably enough.

Meanwhile, the band is frequently profiled on TV, and gets high-profile gigs at Coachella and elsewhere. All this without a record — a single is recorded with producer Johnny K (Megadeth, Staind, Disturbed), but for unclear reasons plans for an album keep getting postponed. (Onstage after a SXSW screening, the band members noted that they are now trying to negotiate an exit from their Sony contract, partly over this issue.)

The dynamic between Sacks and his young clients is the primary focus here. We also get a fair amount of exposure to Brickhouse’s, parents, Noreen and Tracey, who are the group’s chaperones on the road. (It’s too bad we don’t get to meet the other boys’ families, since their circumstances of rising fame and frequent travel at such a young age are unusual enough to make one wonder how it’s affected their home lives.) There’s a surreal edge to some sequences when the UTT can hardly conceal their disinterest at having to sit through corporate office meetings — where their signing is toasted with sparkling apple juice, and they get a bizarre taste of the highlife via a private performance by Fly Panda (whose members include a guy in a panda suit).

Expanding on his 2014 short (a brief portrait simply called “Unlocking the Truth”), Meyer (“Darkon,” “New World Order”) has crafted a solid piece of verite observation, made with an obviously high degree of trust and cooperation from the subjects. Packaging is straightforwardly pro.

Film Review: 'Breaking a Monster'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 20, 2015. (Also in Hot Docs Film Festival.) Running time: 93 MIN.

Production

A Black Label Media production in association with SeeThink Films. Produced by Tom Davis, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill. Executive producers, Andrew Neel, Alan Sacks, Ellen H. Schwartz.

Crew

Directed by Luke Meyer. Written by Meyer, Brad Turner. Camera (color, HD), Ethan Palmer, Hillary Spera; editor, Turner; music, Unlocking the Truth; sound, Matthew Sutton, Ben Templin; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Tom Paul.

With

Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, Alec Atkins, Alan Sacks, Noreen Jackson, Tracey Brickhouse, Johnny K.

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