‘Breaking a Monster’: Hot Docs Review
Teen rock band Unlocking the Truth goes from near-obscurity to media fame right in front of the camera
Not many DIY preteen bands can inspire a massive YouTube following, but the trio of young African-American musicians comprising Brooklyn-based heavy metal group Unlocking the Truth is exceptional in many respects, in part due to their music performance video going viral in 2013 with more than a million views
That clip sparked an unlikely career trajectory for the band, as depicted in Luke Meyer’s insider documentary that follows the kids from YouTube sensations to a gig as Metallica’s opening act. The film’s media-genic young musicians and their positive message of self-reliant success will resonate particularly with youthful viewers, as well as many who have never forsaken dreams for rock ’n roll stardom.
Playing impromptu Times Square gigs with the support of their parents, seventh graders Malcolm Brickhouse (guitar and vocals), Alec Atkins (bass) and Jarad Dawkins (drums) not only build an enviable online audience and garner enthusiastic media coverage, they also attract the attention of 70-year-old Alan Sacks, a longtime Hollywood producer of young musical acts, particularly for Disney TV with the likes of the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato. Sacks can appreciate that the combination of the boys’ instrumental expertise, unusual musical choices and incongruent ethnicity offer a potentially galvanizing artistic profile.
He proposes to manage the band, replacing Malcolm’s parents Noreen Jackson and Tracey Brickhouse, who have been informally handling the group since its inception. In short order, Sacks gets them signed to a Sony Music Entertainment two-album deal reportedly worth $1.8 million. Now along with school, girlfriends and home life, the boys have to cope with contracts, rehearsals and touring, which doesn’t leave much time for some of their other favorite pastimes, like skateboarding and videogames. A Sony promo show at SXSW gives the kids a taste of the big-time, but it’s not until they play a set at the Coachella Valley Music Festival (the youngest band to ever perform there) that the musicians realize the enormity of their accomplishment. Meanwhile, Sacks is still trying to get Sony to commit to producing a music video for an Unlocking the Truth single and sign off on the start of record production.
The trio is clearly quite talented on their instruments, although perhaps understandably less so with singing and songwriting, which is why Sony provides them with professional musical coaching to polish their 30-song repertoire. In addition to wrestling with their burgeoning fame, Jarad, Alec and Malcolm have to figure out how to work with Sacks, who’s a bit of an irascible character himself. Alternately haranguing and inspiring the kids about their responsibility to live up to their artistic potential seems to make for a persuasive combination, but Sacks freaks out over the risks they take on their skateboards and repeatedly loses patience with the boys, who can’t muster much interest in marketing plans and deal points.
Meyer, who co-directed 2006’s offbeat Medieval roleplayer doc Darkon, gained access to the band after previously shooting a short documentary to secure production funding and his easy rapport with the kids and Sacks helps coax sometimes surprisingly candid comments from his subjects. What’s missing however is adequate background on how the boys became such impressive young musicians and why they gravitated toward heavy metal rather than pop or rap, other than a brief comment from Malcolm that his father used to take him to rock-heavy pro wrestling competitions as a kid.
Production company: Black Label Media
Director: Luke Meyer
Screenwriters: Luke Meyer, Brad Turner
Producers: Tom Davis, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Executive producers: Andrew Neel, Alan Sacks, Ellen H. Schwartz
Directors of photography: Ethan Palmer, Hillary Spera
Editor: Brad Turner
Music: Unlocking the Truth
No rating, 93 minutes