Last Friday, Unlocking the Truth’s debut album, Chaos, was released via Tunecore. “Wait,” you might be thinking, “didn’t they sign to Sony for $1.8 million?” Yes, but that was two years ago, and the band, all of whom aren’t even sixteen yet, wound up getting out of the contract before their debut album was recorded. Somewhere in between, Luke Meyer filmed a documentary, Breaking a Monster, about the trio’s unlikely rise from the streets of New York City to the big leagues. Having premiered last year at SXSW, the film is getting it’s theatrical release starting this Friday in New York at Landmark Sunshine Cinema. Last night at Queens’ Museum of the Moving Image, there was an early screening of the film that also doubled as a Q&A with the band, Meyer, and producer Tom Davis as well as a performance from the band.
The subject of the documentary is fascinating. Unlocking the Truth first made a splash in 2013 when a video of the three children, guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse bassist Alec Atkins and drummer Jara Dawkins, went viral on YouTube. The trio, playing outside a subway station in Times Square, was fascinating for several reasons. First of all, kids that weren’t even teenagers yet (they were 11 and 12 years old at the time) were playing metal (a cover of Chelsea Grin’s “Recreant”). Also, they were doing it well. And of course there’s the fact that they were black kids that liked rock and metal. Among the many that picked up on it was Alan Sacks, a producer best known for co-creating ’70s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and Disney Channel movies. Before long, he was managing the band along with Brickhouse’s mom.
Meyer was filming the band almost from the get go, and it feels like we have a bird’s eye view of their ascent. We’re taken from a basement in Flatbush, Brooklyn where the kids have a list of hypothetical shows to play (including the now-closed Roseland Ballroom and adorably misspelled “PNC Bank of Arts Center” and “Hamierstein Ballroom” ) to them signing the deal with Sony and beyond. We also get to see the band be themselves and actually be kids, which are among the best moments of the film. In fact, when the band make it to Los Angeles, the thing they seem to be more excited about than signing the deal is that they know their way around the city from playing so much Grand Theft Auto 5. The guys just want to skateboard in their free time, but can’t even do that, as it’s pointed out that risking injury is a liability once they’ve signed the deal.
Breaking A Monster is sometimes funny, in a fish out of water kind of way. The band clearly aren’t that interested in the business dealings, nor should they necessarily be, as 13 year-olds. We see business meetings where they’re clearly disinterested, with Brickhouse saying at one point “I’m too young for responsibility.” After signing the deal, there’s a bizarre and awkward moment where the band is serenaded by Fly Panda, pop group that includes a tatted-up singer in booty shorts and a panda mascot. There are also promises of gold and platinum albums and worldwide fame, which have been made to new signees to labels and movie contracts since long before Los Angeles existed. Once news of the deal leaks, the band begin to get frustrated. They’re not seeing any of the money, and they don’t even have that much music recorded yet. They are, however, getting to increase their exposure, playing with Queens of the Stone Age, Motorhead and on the Colbert Report. One of the most transcendent moments of the film is their debut performance at Coachella, as the band crowd surf their way to the back of the crowd following a successful set.
Yet watching the film, you can’t help but get the feeling Unlocking the Truth are being exploited for their gimmick and their age. In one scene, Brickhouse repeats to Sacks that his mother said he’s only working with them for money, which the 70 year-old emphatically denies. In another, he shows Sacks a YouTube video in which a man is ranting about the band’s signing, just saying that it’s a corporation exploiting the band because they’re young and black. An already world-weary Brickhouse states that he knows that’s exactly why they’ve been signed. Cracks are starting to show towards the end of the film as well, as the band just want to put music out, but the label keeps pushing things back. Yet for those moments when the band is playing and their natural rapport kicks in, you can’t help but root for them, and seeing that Chaos is finally out and the kids, now 15 and 16, have made it through the ringer intact so far, is an encouraging coda.
There’s a decent amount missing from the film, but that’s no fault of the director. When Breaking A Monster had it’s debut screening last year, the band announced that they were trying to get out of the Sony contract, which they’ve since done. And while Sacks is listed as one of the film’s producers, he’s not longer working with the band (which he says he’s heartbroken about). The band’s exit from their label, successfully crowd-funding and releasing their debut album, and their decision to get rid of Sacks would have made a compelling addition to the film. Following the screening, the band played a set at the theater. Seeing the rapport the three had as they interacted during the Q&A and onstage suggests that we’ll be watching them for some time to come.
Chaos is in stores now. Breaking a Monster opens in New York on June 24 at the Landmark Sunshine and in Los Angeles on July 1 and will then expand to theaters across the country throughout July.