'The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness': Film Review

Courtesy of Ben Niles
A painful story that needed to be told.
1/25/2019

Ben Niles' documentary recounts the story of the popular sibling classical music group whose female members were sexually abused by their father.

The 5 Browns is the sort of wildly successful music group whose backstory would seem ready made for an uplifting big-screen biopic. The classical music phenomenon is composed of five siblings (Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan) who catapulted from studying together at Juilliard to a recording career that has so far resulted in three albums hitting No. 1 on the classical music charts. But as Ben Niles' documentary The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness makes clear, any dramatic film relating the tale would more closely resemble a horror movie.

The siblings were home-schooled in Utah by their parents Keith and Lisa Brown. They were all musical prodigies on piano and were subsequently admitted to Juilliard together, a unique event in the school's history. A 2000 New York Times profile brought them instant fame, including numerous talk show appearances and a widely seen interview on 60 Minutes. In their first year of touring, the group, led by their father Keith as manager, performed 130 concerts worldwide.

"On the surface, we were the 60 Minutes family," one of them comments in a voiceover early in the documentary. "But in the back of my mind, I thought, 'Man, if they only knew.'"

What their audiences didn't know was that the daughters had been sexually abused by their father for years, starting when they were very young. Deondra recalls how, in 2007, she asked her sister Desirae out of the blue if anything sexual had ever been done to her by their father. They soon learned that their younger sister Melody had been similarly victimized. There were, apparently, "thousands of instances of abuse."

After the brothers had been informed, all of them confronted their parents and fired their father as manager. They also went to law enforcement, with the resulting charges against Keith inadvertently made public when he and Lisa were involved in a serious car accident. He was ultimately sentenced to prison for 10 years to life, and is still serving time.

In one of the film's more surreal episodes, Lisa receives a phone call from her imprisoned husband, with whom she's apparently still on good terms. She cheerfully informs him that she's in the middle of an interview; he responds by asking if the interviewer has any questions for him.

According to the doc, the siblings took comfort through their music throughout their ordeals. They dealt with their feelings through what they describe as their "angst album," 2013's The Rite of Spring, their first release not under their father's control.

In 2011, Deondra and Desirae created the Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, dedicated to helping people similarly victimized. Among the organization's missions is statute of limitation reform involving crimes of child sexual abuse, since in many cases existing laws prevent prosecution.

The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness in an expanded version of a short film made by the same director two years ago. It periodically exhibits flabbiness throughout its overlong running time and sometimes has the contrived air of a promotional video. But it nonetheless serves as a powerful portrait of its subjects who overcame severe adversity and continue to make music. The documentary's happy ending shows the group rehearsing a performance of Beethoven's 5th symphony and good-naturedly arguing about tempo.  

Production company: Plow Productions
Director-producer: Ben Niles
Executive producer: Geralyn White Dreyfous
Director of photography: Andy Schocken
Editor: Amanda Larson

99 minutes