Director Luke Meyer draws the audience into the complicated relationship between an emerging teenage band and their manager.
What happens when the adult business world tries to understand the kid world? In ‘Breaking a Monster’ director Luke Meyer explores what it is like beingcaught in the turmoil of the music industry at the age of thirteen.
In 2013 a random passerby recorded a video of three Afro-American kids playing heavy metal music at Times Square. The performance soon became an Internet phenomenon with millions of views on Youtube, where users praised the eleven-year-old musicians Malcolm Brickhouse, Alec Atkins, and Jarad Dawkins for their extraordinary talents. The same year director Luke Meyer met up with the band, known as Unlocking the Truth, to film a four minute documentary short with the same name. A film, which Meyer describes as innocent: “a portrait of being young and imagining all the things you could be”.
The short film lead to the feature length documentary ‘Breaking a Monster’. In the film Meyer follows the band eight months later to explore what happens when an adolescent dream is brought into reality. In many ways a classic rockumentary, ‘Breaking a Monster’ gives insight into the band’s rise to fame and the conflicts that come with commercial success. The main ingredients are however somewhat sweeter than the ones normally listed in the rockumentary-recipe, best exemplified by the subjects’ obvious lack of interest in the clichéd sex, drugs and rock & roll lifestyle. Despite of the film focusing on younger subjects and their issues it is not a naive exposé of the rise to fame, but a deeper examination of the place where art and commerce meet. Meyer quickly saw the potential for a full length-documentary:
The crossover act
“I had the benefit that I knew the guys from before when I made the short film. I had a sense of who they were. Right before I made the film I also met Alan Sacks (the band’s manager - editor’s note), which definitely led me to see that there would be a film here that I wanted to make. I could see his agenda for the band and that his intention for making them successful really fast would somehow be at odds with them. Not that they did not want to make it, but what he was trying to bring them into was so different from the world of being a thirteen year old kid. I thought there would be some dramatic conflict there, I knew that from the beginning.”
Malcolm Brickhouse – Unlocking the Truth
In the film, Sacks, a former Hollywood producer, believes that Unlocking the Truth might just become as big as The Jonas Brothers. Meyer says he agrees with this possibility, without a doubt, the question is only how and if it is worth it for them. In response to the question on whether the band would fit Disney’s syrupy profile, the filmmaker laughs and says: “No, they totally would not!”
“But”, he continues, “with every genre there is going to be the crossover act, the act that takes an outer genre and makes it more accessible to a bigger audience. Things that seem very mainstream now, like hip-hop, were for instance so far from the mainstream a few years back. Then it was brought closer, and the crossover between hip-hop and pop could suddenly be digested by the mainstream audience. People who think the same can happen to metal are not completely wrong.”
Staying out of the picture
Being a fly on the wall, Meyer says it was hard to watch how the industry can scrutinise a musical genre while trying to make it mainstream. Especially when you get to know the people who are at the centre of the experiment. However, as a rule to himself, Meyer never interacts with the subjects of his films in a way that could make them feel judged. Although he connected with the band, it was very important for him not to get in the way of their experience.
“I was very strict with myself on not letting my opinion about their career decisions be made clear. I did not want to make a situation were they felt judged by me. Day by day they were making decisions that would affect what the band was becoming and what the next several months would be like. I did not want them to feel more self-conscious with the operation they were going through with the idea that I was there watching and having a judgment about it. I kept that out of the picture.”
Having said that, Meyer also points out that his rule can be hard to stick to. In particular because documentary filmmaking is in large about empathising with the people you are filming. “They often become your friends and you care about them, but interfering is not what you’re there to do and it’s not why they agreed to let you be there either”, Meyer says. It was a relief when the cameras stopped rolling and the filmmaker could exit his role of external observer.
"Make the stuff you want to make"
“That day, the guys had been discussing about whether going on a certain TV-show and I kept to my rule until we were finished filming. As soon as we were done I suddenly felt free to talk to them as their friend and say that I did not think it was a good idea. I no longer had silence my opinion about their career choices.”
When asked if a younger audience might take a lesson from the boys, Meyer stops for a second before he laughs “I don’t know, man.” He insists that the film is not a moral lesson and it is up to the audience to get whatever they want from it.
Reflecting on the band’s experience, he adds: “The guys felt the pressure of a lot of outside influence. However, I think they are starting to get back to a place where they actually feel like they can make music the way they want it to be, and not make it for a specific audience or shaped by someone else’s opinion. If young people are going to learn anything from the boys in this film, I say stick with what you are doing, make the stuff you want to make”.