“Do record companies ... like ... make you famous?” eighth-grader Malcolm Brickhouse asks a major-label executive in the 2016 documentary Breaking a Monster. Brickhouse is the lead singer and guitarist in the teen metal band Unlocking the Truth, who achieved viral fame after a 2013 YouTube video of them rocking out in Times Square gained more than a million views. The scene shows what happened when the Brooklyn trio, all of whose members are black, traveled to Los Angeles to meet with a bunch of excited, middle-aged white execs in a Sony Entertainment conference room, with a reported $1.8 million dollar deal on the table. Brickhouse asks the question almost in a whisper, a little awkwardly but not weakly, taking advantage of his first chance to speak up after everyone on the label side has pitched them at length about how wonderful their futures are, and just how big the band is going to be. For their part, the middle-school boys are supported by Brickhouse’s mom and dad, two working-class Brooklynites, and grizzled manager/starmaker Alan Sacks, the industry veteran responsible for The Jonas Brothers’ Camp Rock and the 1970s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. The question hangs in the air uncomfortably for a moment while the adults try to decide who should answer it.
“Do they make you famous?” one label guy echoes, stalling for time while he parses out an answer for this deceptively simple question. “Well,” he says, after a brief pause. “You’ll make yourself famous by making good music. And then all of us, and the record company and everybody else who’s going to work for you, is going to help facilitate that.”
The label guy seems pleased with himself, having straddled a narrow line between kid-friendly and professional. But the moment cements a certain foreboding — a reminder that the music industry is a world of slick grown-ups who use words like “facilitate” precisely for their lack of specificity. You wonder immediately whether Brickhouse knows this. Do these kids sense the ambiguity and imbalance in these exchanges? The scene lingers as we watch the preteen trio undertake the task of becoming a product Sony can work with, a band to be made famous.
Breaking a Monster is a quiet, patient work of direct cinema, free of voice-over, titles, or exposition, allowing us to track what happens when three young metal prodigies abandon their normal lives for an expedition into the heart of the music industry. It begins at the moment of their signing and culminates with the band opening for Metallica in Canada and shooting their first music video. Along the way, they must do battle with the sudden appearance of contracts and critics, interviews and assistants, marketing specialists and stylists, and ultimately significant doses of mistrust, resentment, and conflict. Throughout the journey, the three boys and their parents try to pursue their dreams of stardom while making sense of the newfound burdens that come with it. The kids, in particular, struggle with competing desires to both grow up quickly and stave off responsibility for as long as possible.
As much as Breaking a Monster is a film about major-label machinations and how callous and nonsensical they can seem, it is much more a document of the unwelcome adult word encroaching upon childhood space. Adult need and intention threaten our protagonists throughout the film. It comes in the guise of the record-label staff, with their weird fake-happy voices. It comes as the kids learn that they are corporate investments. When Brickhouse is injured in a fall from his skateboard, he is told by Sacks in no uncertain terms that he must give up skating. His body is no longer his own; it now belongs to the company. (Later in the film, Brickhouse’s erstwhile mother makes a tortured decision to screw the label, allowing her son to skate again, but only if he wears more body armor than RoboCop. Never in your life have you seen a child skate so cheerlessly.) When drummer Jarad Dawkins, 13 years old and doing his best impression of a grownup, announces in public that the band has just signed a record deal, Sacks tells Dawkins that he has just fucked Sony’s entire marketing plan. These kids make music for fun, and they hope that being famous will be more fun, a prospect that may or may not be incompatible with them being a product.
After the monetary details of the signing hit the press — Sony had to register the contract with state courts due to the kids’ ages, opening the details to the public record — the boys are forced to deal with the bizarre racial implications that come with being a highly paid black teenage metal outfit. Brickhouse shows Sacks a video in which a black metal blogger criticizes their exorbitant signing fee as another example of so-called liberal media trying to make themselves feel good. “There are a lot of kids out there who are just as amazing,” the blogger says, “but Sony’s coming at [Unlocking the Truth] with over a million dollars? Makes liberals look good, doesn’t it? Makes them look like they’re heroes who came in and gave some young black kids their big break.” The manager attempts to dissuade his client from believing this, but Brickhouse is unconvinced. “I’m not dumb, Alan,” he tells Sacks, taking some delight in making the old man squirm. At a loss, the manager changes the subject: “No more soda for you.”
The primary tension in the film is between the remarkably self-aware but increasingly edgy Brickhouse and the brusque veteran Sacks, who appears much more comfortable sweet-talking deals than being challenged by his young charges. At one point, the two of them butt heads over access to the aforementioned soda, with Brickhouse attempting to hold up the recording until he gets some, and Sacks retaliating by dumping an entire liter onto the sidewalk. At another, Brickhouse asks when the band will see their money, and Sacks deflects. “What do you want with the money?” Brickhouse, past his breaking point with adult control, storms away before Sacks gives his father an ominous warning: “We can’t let him become like Bieber.”
The boys in Unlocking the Truth clearly harbor some fame aspirations, but they are also simply musicians who have found something they love. When the band finally makes it into the studio after a summer of festivals and interviews, we see Brickhouse lay down lead guitar tracks for a single called “Monster.” This is the first time we’ve seen him alone with just his instrument, and it’s the first time he actually seems to be in a good mood.
Like all kids, the trio suffer an entangled relationship with the concept of “the real world,” as adults like to call it whenever they get into full condescension mode. In one scene, bassist Alec Atkins is grounded by his mom after she learns he acted out in a meeting with Sony. (What else could more accurately sum up the bizarre combination of worlds these kids are forced to endure?) His punishment is that he cannot play Grand Theft Auto, and he waxes philosophical about the whole affair. “I like GTA so much because it’s like ... you can live a life before you can actually live it. Like, I can drive cars and all that, which I can’t do now, because that would be illegal. I can, you know, kind of grow up a little.”
The film itself plays the role of patient listener to the kids in a way that the adults seem unable to do. The parents are too busy balancing the competing roles of loving support and firm disciplinarian; Sacks admits to seeing himself in a kindly grandpa role, but his strained and cranky behavior toward the boys as they struggle betrays the fact that he has more at stake in their fame than they do.
As the film descends into its third act, an unmistakable melancholy settles, set in motion by a particularly tense label meeting. Back in his office later that day, Sacks unleashes a temper tantrum at the kids for their lack of cooperation, threatens to return to L.A., and declines to meet with the three of them together again. Several days later, we find each boy sulking at his respective home, trying to understand all that is happening to them. Brickhouse is in his basement making tracks all by himself. He reveals that he is concerned that Unlocking the Truth’s music can’t be as “deep” and as “hard” as he would like for “popularity reasons,” a term he spits with a venom and world-weariness in no way befitting a tween. “As the frontman, especially,” he tells us, “I have to do more than the other two have to do, so ... a lot of pressure on me.”
It is a heartbreaking moment in many ways; we are watching a kid, alone, trying his best to figure out how to shoulder adult responsibility. It comes as no surprise, then, that several months after filming ended, the band walked away from their lucrative contract and parted ways with Sacks — in the process wresting back control of their artistic fates. In the closing sequence of the film, we see the band launching a summer tour, but their uncertainty and quiet sadness is palpable. They have gotten exactly what they wanted, and it is nothing like they hoped. You begin this film rooting for Unlocking the Truth’s success, but you end up rooting for their freedom to be restored.