Unlocking the Truth are a metal band composed of African-American teenagers – and I’m talking, like, their-voices-haven’t-broken-yet-teenagers – from Brooklyn. After a YouTube video of the group busking at Times Square went viral, they scored a $1.8 million record deal and performed at Coachella.
In most documentaries, that would be the story. Check out these ambitious young kids, follow them on their rags-to-riches story. Luke Meyer’s documentary could easily have followed that path – he opens with footage of the boys before they ‘made it big’ – but he takes the road less travelled, instead choosing to focus on their challenges and experiences after signing to Sony. The decision pays obvious dividends; Breaking a Monster is not a surface-level feel-good music doco, but a rich exploration of the complexities – and parasitic tendencies – of the commercial music industry.
Meyer’s smartest decision is to adopt a detached, distant perspective on the proceedings documented here – the occasional live performance, sure, but mostly a long string of meetings between the boys and the record label (invariably shepherded by their elderly manager – and espoused “grandfather” – Alan Sacks). Rather than painting Unlocking the Truth as innocent victims or talented prodigies or any other stereotype, he simply portrays them as people: conflicted, yes, talented, yes, naïve, yes. Unlike many of the suits encountered in the film, Meyer never regards their identity – especially their blackness, their age – as a ‘gimmick.’
The tone of the meetings, the level of the discourse shifts as the documentary progresses. The boys are initially treated – on the surface, at least – as equals, asked about their opinions on branding and promotion and the like. But a patronising tone begins to infiltrate the meetings, as though they can simply be badgered into accepting the record company’s opinion on such strategies because of their age (though I suspect most musicians would be essentially treated like children in these circumstances). Alan questions the legitimacy of their opinions: “I don’t know if this is real,” he asks at one point, “or if he heard it on Degrassi High?”
The commercial realities of being signed to a major label become increasingly apparent, as well. After commanding the stage at a heavily-attended Coachella show, the band appears in a Verizon advertisement; something with which the boys can impress their friends, but that seems inconsistent with their artistic outlook. They’re trained into adopting the conventions of the genre – vocal training to get them to scream like this, some craggy has-been dressing them in suitably ‘metal’ clothing, etcetera.
All the while, the boys’ input into the process lessens. Their freedom evaporates – they’re banned from skateboarding after a hospital visit, and one wonders whether the motivation is cautious parenting or simply a commercial imperative (as Alan notes, they can’t play guitar with a broken arm). They begin to assert themselves – rejecting Sony’s plans for a music video despite Alan’s barely-explained protests that it’ll “take months” to release a different video. Malcolm, the band’s lead singer, is unfazed at social media complaints that they were only signed as “a token of liberalism” – he’s aware that their age and race played no small part in landing the deal.
The film ends on an optimistic note; despite the challenges of the industry, the boys remain positive – and ambitious (“We might not be the biggest metal band of all time, but we just gotta believe.”). Reportedly they’ve since begun negotiations to escape their contract – after watching Breaking a Monster, one can only hope that they’ll succeed.