In the summer of 2013, a YouTube video appeared showing a trio of 11- and 12-year-old boys playing astonishingly polished metal in Times Square. The band, called Unlocking the Truth—guitarist/vocalist Malcolm Brickhouse, bassist Alec Atkins, and drummer Jarad Dawkins—soon became the center of internet buzz, and they attracted the attention of entertainment industry veteran Alan Sacks, creator of Welcome Back, Kotter and producer of numerous Disney TV movies. This grizzled, grandfatherly latter-day Al Pacino lookalike became their manager, and all of a sudden three kids from Flatbush, Brooklyn, were inside the machine.
All of this is tracked in Luke Meyer's insightful new documentary, Breaking a Monster, which paints an absorbing portrait of thoroughly normal kids—they like skating, video games, and repeatedly checking their smartphones—who happen to be confident, disciplined, and extremely impressive musicians. It also charts their often awkward relationship with Sacks and the overwhelmingly white music business world; their immersion into the touring lifestyle, including prestigious gigs at Coachella and South by Southwest; and the pained machinations of their staggering $1.8 million multi-album record deal with Sony. (Since the end of the film's timeframe in 2014, Sacks has been let go by the band, and the Sony contract was annulled. Unlocking the Truth's debut album, Chaos, is being released by independent distributor TuneCore.)
In the week leading up to the film's release, I spoke briefly with Unlocking the Truth, who are now in high school. Malcolm, who cites Slipknot and System of a Down as being among his favorite bands, is keenly aware of his group's selling points, but doesn't want that to limit them: "I know that people's attention when they see us is drawn to our skin color and age. I hope that when people hear our music that they can get past that. I know our music surpasses the fact that we are black and singing metal."
Collectively, they seem unfazed about some of the negative online attention they've received down the years—a subject sensitively addressed by Meyer in the film. Jarad welcomes what he dubs "constructive criticism," and said that nasty comments don't have much of an impact because "everybody is entitled to their own opinion."
"The comments are mostly good," Malcolm elaborated. "But the bad ones, you just have to laugh at. Sometimes you want to respond, but you can't."
I also asked Malcolm where he sees the band in ten years. His response was measured and confident. "I see us performing at Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, with about seven albums out," he said. "Just doing everything we possibly can."
After speaking with the band, I was able to have a longer chat, also over the phone, with Meyer. We discussed the origins of the film, the racial coding of rock music, and the band's extraordinary confidence.
VICE: Tell me briefly how you came to get involved in the project.
Luke Meyer: I made a short film about them in 2014, which got significant industry awareness, and then we had the opportunity to make this one when things had shifted and they had a lot of opportunities in front of them. The short is basically about what it means to have big dreams and be young and picture yourself stepping into the bigger world. With the feature we were able to take that one step further, to see what it means to have dreams, and then how complicated it is to see those become reality.
Along the way we were able to address big questions about childhood stardom and what the music industry does to people as they enter it, as far as where arts and commerce come together and how to balance that. Because they are African American, there's a lot of questions about race and how they were treated and what decisions are made.
Something that really struck me about the film was how preternaturally confident they were. It was almost like they had this sense of destiny about them. Did you get that from the start when you started working with them?
One thing that's really interesting—especially with Malcolm, but really with all of them—is that there's an idea that you have to believe in the end result. Believe it first and then it can become a reality. He really does that. He has things on his walls, like vision boards. I'm not saying that's why they're successful , but I'm very interested in that thought process that people have.
American music has a history of being so racially coded, and rock music in particular is always coded as a white thing, despite the likes of Chuck Berry, Prince, and the Black Rock Coalition.
There has been music that has been put in a box as "white music" and " black music. " There's the blues, which is the base of rock 'n' roll. This has always been a part of what we've been looking at when we look at music. There are white blues musicians and there are black rock 'n' roll musicians, but there is still a sense of a black rock band like Living Color being very unique, so we take note of that.
There's a great moment in the film where you show a black commentator on YouTube making a point about how the band are almost a token, and will be seized on by the industry because they'll make white liberals feel good. Malcolm is totally cool about it, and agrees that there is an element of truth to that …
It's empowering actually, positive for him, which is not what I thought it would be in that moment. He's like, "I understand this thoroughly enough that I'm going to use this to my advantage." But no one wanted to talk about it. It's so very obvious in the film that the band is surrounded by a whole bunch of people who are working on their careers who are white, and want to treat things as a " post-racial" kind of situation, when race was so clearly an issue, so clearly a part of the story.
"The idea of post-racialism is often an idea you hear white people tell you."
That post-racial idea stuck around quite a while, didn't it, after Barack Obama was elected?
White people will tell you we live in a post-racial world much more than anyone of color will tell you that. I think a lot of what's going on right now in the discussion about race in this country is a focus on the white perspective and it's skewed. So all the discussion we've been having about race, about racism, and things related to that, start from a place where a lot of elements are not even included in the discussion, as far as the experiences of people of color.
The guys are also just trying to be themselves without that burden of representation, and play their music.
As much as their identity, as a team, is a way to draw an advantage in a situation, it's also a huge bummer because it seems they can't just be a band. They have to be a black one. They are black people playing a music that is a genre that is not very populated by people who aren't white. They have to be a " subgenre," regardless of what the music sounds like, and that's a bummer. They don't want to have to deal with that.
Alan Sacks is a fascinating character, and the grandfather-kids relationship arc is quite touching …
That was very much the way that they interacted. After filming with us, several months later, they parted ways, but for a while he thought of himself basically as family and they felt very warm to him and that's what you see in the film. You wonder how it got to be that way so quickly. It's a business relationship, [but] nothing is totally clear in people's relationships when it comes to art or music and business. There's a lot of different things happening simultaneously.
Did the scale of what happened with the guys—the huge media interest, the giant Sony record deal —take you by surprise?
Even from making the short film, you felt potential. You felt that this kind of thing would happen. You couldn't know if it was going to, just like even from where we stand now things are on a real upswing for them, but I don't know how big it's going to be. You never do. That's even more of a powerful thing when you go from being a band that's playing on the streets of Manhattan, and in your own basement, to being a band that's playing Coachella. That step is a much bigger step than the ones they're taking right now. Their story, as it's unfolded, has had a bunch of turns, bumps, and it wasn't a direct line as some people thought it might be. But they still have that about them—a glow that might just make a great future.
Follow Ashley Clark on Twitter.
The film is currently playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York. It opens tomorrow at Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles, and in selected theaters nationwide on July 1.