There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Breaking a Monster: A Film About Unlocking The Truth, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
There’s a point early on in Luke Meyer’s 2015 documentary Breaking a Monster: A Film About Unlocking The Truth where I realized that this film was not at all what I thought it was when I went and started it up. The movie, about a trio of middle schoolers, Unlocking the Truth, who rose to fame when a video of them busking in the streets of New York went viral, starts off with a series of clips of the kids at various young ages playing their instruments. “We love music, and this is going to be a tale of triumph!” these clips seem to say. They got a bunch of local and national news coverage, and you think “These vibrantly young guys are going to convert all this buzz into something good!” Then we cut to Alan Sacks, their septuagenarian manager, who is looks more like a Nick Kroll character come to life than you’d think humanly possible, and it all goes off the tracks.
Sacks, one of the co-creators of ‘70s sitcom mainstay Welcome Back, Kotter, had recently gotten some steam by producing early Disney vehicles for the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato. If you thought that would make him the perfect fit for some skateboarding teens who play chugging heavy metal, you’d be... wrong. “I’m sort of rebellious, I’m sort of a PUNK!” Sacks says as a means of proving his cred right before he shows off a framed TV Guide crossword puzzle that used his name as an answer. He’s a dude who looks at these kids and hears a cash register drawer popping open, but the joke’s on him because these kids end up being more than he can handle. Malcolm Brickhouse (lead vocals, lead guitar), Alec Atkins (bass), and Jarad Dawkins (drums) regularly treat him like a 1980’s babysitter who’s on the verge of falling asleep. To them, he’s pretty much just the guy who knows the WiFi passwords wherever they are.
In the immortal words of Q-Tip (who shows up briefly, in fact), “Industry rule #4080: Record company people are shady." As it turns out, execs are even shadier when it comes to a handful of kids they think that they can wring some money out of. For their part, the kids seem only half into the idea of committing to the actual street-level grinding required to make their band happen, with Grand Theft Auto taking up about as much mental space as music. It’s not their fault, obviously. They’re kids, being forced to sit in meetings and contemplate lawyerly paperwork, so yeah pulling up Flappy Bird in the middle of all that seems like a reasonable call under the circumstances.
So, are they any good? Yeah! They’re pretty damn good for some relatively self-taught heavy metal fanatics who still have a couple of years out from being able to legally drive. Are they prodigies? Nah, not really. But that doesn’t matter when you have a story as sticky as theirs. They’re charming enough and their narrative is so unlikely, helpfully girded with some racial unity undertones (Black kids? Playing METAL?!), that it’s totally understandable that the media came calling long before Sony (or Alan Sacks) did.
The unexpected pleasure of watching Breaking a Monster was seeing so many music industry middle management stereotypes all performed perfectly, and with zero irony or self-awareness, by the higher ups at Sony, who signed the band to a $1.8 million dollar contract for five albums, with the band having only a handful of original songs in their repertoire. An early meeting wraps up with some techno pop artist in hot pants who shows up with her buddy in a blinged out panda costume to perform for the kids. Sony lays it on thick for Unlocking the Truth who, again, have yet to record anything past a few YouTube videos.
Watching everyone trip over themselves to sign these kids is comical, if a little bit too real at times. These are kids who would have real promise if they would’ve gotten the right connections early on, but instead they got the guy who helped invent the Sweathogs. All’s well enough that ends well, though, with the band having recently canned their manager and backed out of the Sony deal since the end of filming for this documentary. They’re planning on releasing everything themselves. It’s going to be a tougher road, but their voices have thankfully dropped which has improved their sound a fair amount even if I’m not entirely feeling the weird Slipknot masks they’re messing with these days.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.