Three years ago, Unlocking the Truth opened for the punk band, Death. Let me explain how.
In 2013, I came across the band Unlocking the Truth (UTT) via a documentary short on Vimeo of the same name. Instantly enamoured with the trio – Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, and Alec Atkins – I booked the brief yet compelling film about a band comprised of three young Black boys from Brooklyn who play heavy metal, as a filmic opening act ahead of “A Band Called Death,” a feature length documentary about Death, the 1970s pioneering proto-punk band from Detroit.
I recently had the full circle experience of an extrapolated version of the short film, titled “Breaking A Monster” a few day ago. I was thrilled to see what the charismatic Brickhouse and his talented cohort had been up to since I last saw them on the big screen, playing with the passion and skill of musicians twenty years their senior.
Filmmaker, Luke Meyer has constructed a strong documentary which captures the heart of UTT both as a unit and as individuals. His storytelling is refined, never seeming forced or contrived. The camera quietly finds the naturally occurring motifs of childhood vs. the business of the music industry and technology as a character of its own, all while exploring “Monster,” the UTT song. The symbolic “Monster” is open to interpretation. It is certainly worth going to see the film and creating your own hypothesis.
The film starts with a montage of footage of UTT’s earlier days from 2007 when the band was formed, until we are caught up to 2014 as the band negotiates a pending contract with Sony Music. Noreen Brickhouse, Malcolm’s mother, is the organizational force behind the band. She is a pillar of confidence and it is clear that mama don’t play; but she sometimes wonders, “Am I stressing them out on an adult level?” This comment sets the film up for an examination of whether the spirited children are being given too much responsibility, and what long term effects that will have on them.
“Mama Brickhouse” is a classic – a novice manager who leads with a heap of natural savvy and brilliance that her son has clearly inherited from her. She is the moral compass. As the record label tries to reduce the kids to a bottom line, she is determined to maintain their youth. She takes Malcolm shopping for elaborate safety gear after their manager, Alan Sacks, has told them that Malcolm is no longer allowed to skate, for fear that he may injure his million dollar, guitar playing arms. “I’m his mother…I had to make an executive decision, they are still kids and they need to play.”
From the moment the contract is introduced, we see the industry encroaching on their ability to simply be kids. A shadow drops in over the group, eclipsing the initial innocence of their musical journey together. It is as if they are being dragged into young adulthood. In a chilling moment of record label depravity, a Sony executive tells the boys, “We have lots of beautiful women who are singers for you to meet, who think you’re adorable already.” Brickhouse and Atkins chuckle uncomfortably. Dawkins remains unfazed.
The comment epitomizes the sexism inherent in the music industry. A scantily clad woman flanked by dancing pandas in gold chains, gyrates and sings a grating song, while two of the boys pretend to enjoy themselves. Dawkins, the most mature of the trio, is nonplussed and his expression shows it. He’s not here for the antics. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we learn that while Brickhouse, Dawkins, and Atkins have a healthy desire to inhabit the world of children (we see ample shots of them playing games on their phones, texting, and sharing inside jokes and rough-housing). But they are not playing around when it comes to their careers. In vain, Sony dangles things like rappers and high profile hip hop producers – things that run counter to their sensibility. They don’t even like rap music.
Dawkins is downright formidable. Most attentive in meetings, he makes a room full of Sony executives and parents wait as he personally reviews their contract. Sure, he was not experienced enough to know that the five album, $1.78 million (with a $60,000 advance contingent upon moving 200,000 units) contract, was a bum deal, but the gesture showed that while Brickhouse is the frontman of the band, Dawkins has stepped up as a leader, who will be most vocal where their business affairs are concerned.
When Sony presents UTT with band merchandise they’ve created, one of the T-Shirts looks exactly like the cartoon, “Boondocks.” The boys are extremely vocal about their dissatisfaction, laughing at being presented with such images. “I don’t even wear baggy pants!” Brickhouse exclaims. Their chief concern is creating music and being kids, but this does not detract from their impressive savvy and assertiveness when it come to how they choose to represent themselves. They have no wobble about their band’s image. “We want to be taken seriously,” Brickhouse says, in response to the cartoonish images on the tees.
I love this documentary. I could have easily written a long essay on all of the dynamics at play in “Breaking a Monster,” which achieves on many levels. The racial undertones and implications of an all Black heavy metal band alone requires a separate piece. The kids are compelling to watch, whether they are playing video games, being mischievous or petulant and especially when performing. UTT is special and Malcolm Brickhouse is a visionary force. They possess sage fortitude and refuse to be manipulated, handled or controlled. This is frustrating to the adults in charge. It is also a huge factor for why they are so successful.
The “Monster” in the title refers, in the literal sense, to the thrasher single “Monster” which UTT perfects, performs and records throughout the film; however there is a figurative monster lurking in the midst. I’ll let you watch and judge for yourself, whom or what that Monster is.
Abramorama is releasing Luke Meyer’s music documentary, “Breaking a Monster,” in New York today, June 24, and in Los Angeles on July 1, 2016, expanding throughout the country thereafter.
Unlocking The Truth’s debut album, “CHAOS,” was released on June 17, 2016 via premiere independent music distributor, Tunecore.
Watch a trailer for “Breaking a Monster” below:
Nella Fitzgerald has her Master’s Degree in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA. She is an Independent Film Curator and Festival Programming Consultant. Her 10 year old daughter’s favorite film is “Citizen Kane.” She has spent the last year teaching Visual Analysis and yoga to elementary students at Roses in Concrete Community School in Oakland, CA. Find her on Twitter @Nellafitzz or read her blog at: Nelledejour.blogspot.com.