Breaking a Monster: A young Brooklyn metal trio and a Sony contract
by Charlie Walentiny
Chronicling the rapid rise of internet metal band Unlocking the Truth, Breaking a Monster has all the footage one would expect from similar documentaries, with one major catch: instead of following the rise of some long-haired Scandinavians from the frozen north crossing the Atlantic, it offers an unflinching portrait of three African-American middle schoolers from Brooklyn being swept up by Sony in a $1.8 million record contract.
It starts out harmlessly enough, showcasing old home recordings of the band over grainy audio from the camera’s microphone while the boys jam out in their practice space. “They can’t do it themselves,” says lead guitarist Malcom Brickhouse’s mom, “they’re too little.” Jumping between footage of the viral video of them playing their set in Times Square and excerpts from interviews of what got them into heavy metal music (everything from drummer Jarad Dawkins watching Naruto at Malcom’s house to bass player Alec Atkins getting a bass from Malcom) the documentary introduces us to Alan Sacks, who becomes their manager and liaison with “the Industry” to the boys.
Sacks also acts as a sort of shield, describing himself as “part of the system” but wanting to work the boys into something that will let them create while also being marketable. Having produced dozens of shows and movies for Disney, he sees a refreshing take on music made by kids, for kids. Malcom and co. are often at odds with Sacks on this however; simultaneously wanting to be taken seriously but wary of the sudden rush of adult responsibility. “Now, you’re on adult’s time, you’re on adult’s money and when you’re digging in adult pocketbooks, they ain’t playing,” warns Malcom’s mom Tracey.
There’s the lamentations of middle schoolers you’d expect, from Dawkins’ exasperated sigh about having to pay attention to his girlfriend when he’s on the road to Atkins being uncomfortable with how serious everything became so quickly. It’s made clear that first and foremost, they are about trying to be the best metal band ever. A lofty goal, and one that creates a stark contrast with shots of Sony Entertainment courting the boys; putting them in ads for Verizon but talking down to them, throwing a private party with DJ Panda (which is as uncomfortable to watch as the boys look in the video.)
Seeing how exhausted and downright bored the kids seem in the dozens of interviews, meetings and other nuts and bolts shots is quite telling of the actual dynamic between the boys and the label, with Sacks as a mediator. Being ill-prepared with the amount of red tape and not wanting to compromise their vision is a running theme throughout as well; they want to record an album, Sony wants a single, product placement, music videos and branding. During a meeting, Sacks makes a jab at Malcom who placed his head on the table after being upset about how long it would take to even get in a studio: “Oh, is it nap time? Is it milk and cookies time?” he ribs to Malcom. “No, see, I’m not tired, I’m aggravated,” he replies with all the calmness and confidence a 14-year-old can muster.
Sacks pulls no punches either; letting the kids know frankly and honestly what each step is and why it’s so much more work than they expected. After bombing a particularly tough interview with Sony, Sacks decides to go back the West Coast and wrangle the contract solo. After finally settling down, they get to record a single and release a music video; however, the potential album is still held out as a carrot.
While the documentary doesn’t cover the band’s subsequent battle to be released from the label, it is hinted at in their frustration with how long it was taking to actually get an album recorded. Frustration with being pegged as child-stars and being regulated more as a product than as artists led them to sever the contract in 2015. They were finally able to record and release their debut album Chaos in 2016 via independent distributor TuneCore.
Meyer’s hands-off directorial style and dedication to showing even the minutiae of the boys’ lives helps drill down the most disturbing part of the film; kids on the cusp of adulthood with all the trappings of both sides of the age coin and their struggle with an industry they are woefully unprepared for. Echoing other child stars with similar stresses, it’s good to see that the band found a way out and instead pursuing what they were so clearly interested in in the first place: making heavy metal music.
See Breaking a Monster on Oct. 8 at 11:45 a.m. at the Pickford Film Center as part of its annual Doctober series. For more info, see www.pickfordfilmcenter.org.
Published in the October 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine