Breaking a Monster
Directed by Luke Meyer
Opens June 24
A tense glimpse of the limits of precocity and into the retro teen-idol grooming, viral brand-building and cavernous infrastructure of the remnants of the major-label music industry, Breaking a Monster begins with footage of three black tweens from Flatbush shredding and headbanging, laying bare the secretly adorable essence of metal in all its insular preening intensity. It’s easy to see why Unlocking the Truth—Malcolm Brickhouse (guitar), Jarad Dawkins (drums), and Alec Atkins (bass)—racked up YouTube views in the millions with clips of their full-band busking in Times Square: the mix of technically accomplished high-tempo riffs, and huggable young people acting committed rather than diffident, is certainly attention-grabbing. It’s a bit harder to see how any of that necessarily leads to a $1.8 million Sony contract, and Breaking a Monster earns its potency from settling into that uncanny valley between a striking proposition and a business plan—between child’s play and grown-up business.
Director Luke Meyer structures Breaking a Monster primarily around Unlocking the Truth’s relationship with their manager, Welcome Back Kotter co-creator Alan Sacks, an Einstein-haired, Brooklyn-accented, faintly Willy Loman-esque showbiz wheelerdealer making his living in old-school star factory of the Disney Channel and environs (though he allows that Unlocking the Truth are slightly less wholesome in their appeal than the Jonas Brothers). Quite quickly, Malcolm, Jarad and Alec are flying out to Los Angeles to sign on the dotted line, decline a sparkling-cider toast, and celebrate at a private signing ceremony involving a panda and PG-13 (white) booty dancer. A showcase at SXSW 2014 follows, then a very early daytime slot on the Vans Warped Tour as well as a Colbert appearance; in between taking cameraphone videos of each other doing skate trips, and hanging out with their childhood friends in central Brooklyn, the three boys deal with positive reviews, bright-eyed morning-show novelty coverage, and online haters, as well as natural teen self-consciousness. (Malcolm’s development as a lyricist and as a confident singer, despite his unbroken voice, is a strong narrative through-line, and a reassuring in that it underscores the band’s creative progress during the filming period.)
Unlocking the Truth are very much age-appropriate in their behavior. Malcom’s 20-item list of “Things I want to do before next summer” includes “Learn how to kickflip” and “Learn how to sweep pick on five strings” (both checked off) as well as “Keep my room clean for a week” and “Meet Metallica” (not yet). Alec loves Grand Theft Auto because he can imagine himself as an adult, who can drive; when Jarad breaks up with his girlfriend of five months, he reflects mournfully to the camera that they were headed in two different directions: he was going to 8th grade, she was going to high school. The boys read aloud haltingly, but you can see why Meyer includes a clip from English class where The Giver, and Jonas’s bewildered ascension to Receiver of Memory, is covered.
Having been pushed by parents to develop their talents (especially, from what we see, by the evidently home-owning Brickhouses), Malcolm, Jarad and Alec find themselves catapulted into circumstances—branding, press release timing, tour support—they’re ill-equipped to understand. Typical teen dreams of fame come more or less true, as they’re dropped into the machinery of celebrity without any apprenticeship—at once resembling the readymade stars of contemporary reality TV and viral culture, and the child stars of yore. They possess all the savvy and worldliness of averagely self-aware NYC public school kids—which is to say, not much, except in short, surprising bursts of grown-up insight. They tend to check out of meetings, playing games on their phones, but sometimes push back with surprising acuity against marketing concepts they feel are out of keeping with their entirely original material—a very kidlike mix of malleability and agency which exasperates Sacks to no end. Though he describes his feelings towards them as grandfatherly, his patience is finite: banter over access to the “Coke” (Coca-Cola, come on) at a recording session ends when he storms outside to pour the soda down a storm drain. Nobody really tells the band anything, because they’re too inexperienced to understand it; this engenders feelings of paranoia, especially in frontman Malcolm. Much of the tension of the film is simply the tension of watching three promising men grow up, and hoping that their experiences won’t reinforce a sense of cynicism or entitlement.
As such, Breaking a Monster’s look inside the music industry is filtered through adults adjusting their patter, or not, when trying to come across to children. A voice coach and a producer (and Trash & Vaudeville’s Jimmy Webb, who helps the band dress for Coachella) keep their interactions professional, with occasional slips into pediatrician-style rhetorical questions or goofiness. Sacks’s sugar-daddy fantasies are upended by his not infrequent passive-aggressive power plays, and redeemed to a certain extent by his befuddled, worn-out affection. Label reps’ various attempts at ingratiating flattery—think of all the beautiful women you’ll work with; congratulations on manifesting your dreams as reality—seems deeply insincere in form, but in content are perhaps not so different from other instances of corporate wishcasting.