We’ve all seen the familiar arc of a rising musician in so many film biopics that you can probably recite it along with me: The musician toils in their humble beginnings, uses their talent and determination to get noticed, finds success (usually compromising their artistry at the demand of The Man along the way), gets caught up in a world of excess, watches their professional and personal world crumble as a result, and –if they’re lucky – makes it out alive on the other side. The only difference in music doc Breaking a Monster’s narrative arc is that it isn’t all happening to Johnny Cash – it’s happening to a bunch of 13-year-olds.
Unlocking the Truth became something of a viral phenomenon last year when they inked a $1.8 million record deal with Sony. After blowing up online, the trio of African American Brooklyn pre-teens were thrust into a world of press, festival gigs, and TV appearances; and, as Luke Meyer’s new documentary shows, even the most articulate and mature kids probably aren’t ready to handle that level of exposure. Breaking a Monster charts the band’s rise from busking on the streets to navigating the red-tape wasteland of today’s music industry. Cue the exhilarating live performances, screaming fans, arguments with the label bigwigs, and confiscated Coke (note that’s Coke, not coke).
One great thing about Breaking a Monster is that it doesn’t lionize or demonize any of its subjects. We root for the lads of Unlocking the Truth, but they also frequently come across as bratty and annoying (as, you know, almost all 13-year-old boys would). And while band’s resident “momager” seems to have the best intentions for the boys, but her decision to effectively sell them off to Sony is not a clear-cut one. To that end, while the suits at the record label may be out-of-touch at best and shady money-grubbers at worst, they’re also not presented as inhuman; one of the film’s strengths is that the music biz is presented in a refreshing un-glamorous way.
In a way, though, Meyer almost goes a little too easy on everyone involved, just skirting around some of the darker, more interesting undercurrents of the story. For example, the issue of the band’s race is only touched upon in one scene, where frontman Malcolm shows that he’s a little less naïve than we thought and understands the possible “novelty” appeal of an all-black metal band. Meyer also doesn’t get into the current state of the music industry much, even though it’s clearly heavily dictating the band’s stunted success. He instead focuses much more on the boys, which, while it makes for an entertaining watch, it feels like a slightly incomplete telling of the band’s nascent career.
It’s sad to watch the increasing corporatization of Unlocking the Truth. (As the boys continuously complain about, they just want to put out an album already!). But Breaking a Monster is also a fun and accessible documentary, able to please even those with no interest in heavy metal music. All three boys obviously love playing music, and they’re all engaging, fun, and varied subjects. Meyer clearly built a high level of trust with them and while there are moments of obvious self-consciousness around the camera, his behind-the-scenes look at the band feels refreshingly honest. Unlocking the Truth follow a familiar rise-and-fall musician trajectory, but Breaking a Monster works because it gets to the heart of the band members involved.