It's not breaking news that the record industry is not what it was in its heyday. The music streaming freely to smartphones and computers across the globe tells the tale, along with the industry's ever-plummeting sales figures. But remnants of the old record business remain, from the grooming and packaging of promising young artists to big-time recording contracts that don't necessarily prove beneficial — artistically or financially — to those same artists.
For many viewers, the continued existence of that age-old system is the first revelation found in director Luke Meyer's insightful Breaking a Monster. It's a fly-on-the-wall documentary that tells the story of Brooklyn heavy metal band Unlocking the Truth, which consists of three African-American boys who were 12 and 13 when the film was shot. Heavy metal is not a field widely known for its racial diversity.
When we first meet the band, it has just come under the wing of record-industry veteran Alan Sacks, who was the force behind the Jonas Brothers' multimillion-dollar teen-rock empire. Sacks is about to shepherd Unlocking the Truth into the offices of Sony Music Entertainment to sign a $1.8 million, five-album recording contract. The slow-building conflicts that arise from that celebratory event initially seem like something we've seen many times before. But Breaking a Monster has something more to offer: A real world coming-of-age story about three spirited kids gradually learning to forge their own path through the adult world of big money and high expectations.
Unlocking the Truth's story began when lead singer-guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse, drummer Jarad Dawkins and bassist Alec Atkins decided to take their original thrash metal — inspired by bands ranging from Slayer to Disturbed — to the streets of Manhattan's Times Square. Video posted to YouTube by a fan garnered more than a million views, attracting the attention of national entertainment media and future manager Sacks. Though technically adept far beyond their years, band members were self-aware enough to admit they were still developing their own style and unique voice.
Of course, Sacks and Sony Music had their own ideas about how to shape the band's music and, more important, their brand. Tensions mount as the label continually delays the band's first recording sessions, waiting for Brickhouse's vocals to improve even as the band scores a high-profile gig at the massive Coachella festival and a by-request opening slot for Metallica at Heavy Montreal. It's a pleasure to witness the kids' budding rebellion as they begin to understand that making music and staying true to themselves are the only things that matter.
Meyer keeps Breaking a Monster moving briskly and does an admirable job of capturing the stress and eventual triumph of the band's early breakout shows. The director made a short documentary portrait called Unlocking the Truth in 2013 (still available on YouTube), which allowed him to earn the band's trust early on and avoid for-the-camera staginess in Breaking a Monster.
The only thing missing from the film is a postscript revealing what happened in the period just after the shoot. Frustrated by endless delays in getting their music out to the world, Unlocking the Truth negotiated its way out of both the Sony contract and Sacks' management. Independent at last, the band finally released its first album, Chaos, last month. High school finally looms ahead for the band, but so does a shot at self-determined success.