Near the end of “Breaking A Monster,” one of the three twelve-year-old kids who form the hip, new, and almost famous heavy metal band Unlocking the Truth complains to the filmmakers that he can’t play “Grand Theft Auto,” since he has to constantly practice with his band mates in order to release their first single by their strict, corporate-mandated deadline. It doesn’t matter that he seems to be living the dream of thousands of aspiring teen artists, with a music career that’s about to blow up to the tune of a $1.8 million record deal. He laments the fact that ‘GTA’ offers him the fantasy of doing adult things like driving a car, since he can’t do them in real life.
So, here’s a kid who attained a borderline fantastical goal, especially considering his young age, yet all he wants to do is to immerse himself into another fantasy, probably because he’s still, well, a kid. Perhaps that’s why it’s not surprising that, as we watch the band’s ongoing success, from performing on New York street corners all the way to a major deal with Sony, their enthusiasm and gleeful motivation for their music drops perpendicular to their professional rise.
At the beginning of “Breaking a Monster,” an insightful and brave fly-on-the wall documentary about how the sausage is made in today’s music industry through the eyes of the adolescent trio in Unlocking The Truth, we see YouTube clips of the band performing on the street. Their music is nothing really new in the world of metal, but it’s raw, angry, and full of passion. It becomes clear from the first riff that reverberates across the Manhattan street corner that these kids play to first and foremost satisfy the insatiable hunger they have for their art.
We get the feeling that if no one was watching, they would rock just as hard, and that’s what makes their output so infectious. However, that passion is also what ironically attracts the professional music business to them, a business that seeks to package them into an easily accessible and predictable product, eventually sucking out all joy from the process.
“Breaking a Monster” chronicles the band’s first steps into the pro music world as they tour various festivals and prepare to record their debut EP. But unlike other “documentaries” about teen music stars on tour, like “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” or “One Direction: This Is Us,” it’s not a record company-commissioned circle jerk produced solely for marketing purposes.
Director Luke Meyer cleverly distances himself and his crew as much as possible from his subjects, presenting a raw but effective approach that simply shows the boys running from one company meeting to another, playing at mainstream venues that might not be their cup of tea, all the while looking more and more exhausted and disinterested. As we watch the doc, we begin to realize how appropriate the its title really is.
Unlike other music documentaries like “Amy,” there aren’t any clear good and bad guys here. At first, it might look like their manager, Alan Sacks, a septuagenarian who co-created “Welcome Back Kotter” and produced a bunch of Disney Channel movies, is cynically piggybacking the novelty value of a trio of African-American kids from Brooklyn playing a genre of music that’s typically associated with white people. But he seems to genuinely believe in these kids’ talents, and wants to give them an outlet to express themselves artistically to a bigger audience. The problem is that he tries to find a sweet spot between a true punk attitude and mainstream pop, when the kids might only be interested in the raw output of their music.
The kids, on the other hand, get the opportunity of a lifetime, yet they seem to be more interested in their little bubble. During their massive life changing record deal meeting with Sony, Meyer focuses his camera on one of the kids playing “Flappy Bird” on his phone while his future is being decided by a room full of yuppie suits. This one quick close-up, more than any other, shows how little they care about anything but their music, even if that “anything” includes the boring financial details of said music.
One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film shows the band, looking exhausted from weeks of touring, arguing with their manager about how everything’s about the money now. By the time they finish their first single, the band doesn’t contain a fraction of the rebellious energy of the street corner performances. This sort of honesty is why “Breaking a Monster” is the perfect antidote to glossy documentaries about teen music sensations, offering a realistic look at wearying grind of the industry machine. [B+]