At first glance, the formula is tailor made for a feature documentary: take a three-piece heavy metal band consisting of preteen African-Americans from Flatbush, Brooklyn, add an old-time music manager to the mix, and have the band sign a major record company contract while playing some high-profile performances. It would seem that such a scenario could either become the rags-to-riches success story that America relishes or an examination of Murphy’s Law, oddly a theme that Americans equally love. But in the case of Breaking a Monster, director Luke Meyer frames neither of those narratives, instead unveiling a profound story of three considerably earnest young men on the cusp of their teenaged years amidst this unlikely tale of musical achievement.
For Meyer, the feature developed after shooting a shorter piece about the trio – Unlocking the Truth – a year prior. “It was in some festivals and online and went viral,” Meyer said just before a key mid-March SXSW Festival screening. “In a month, a million people had seen it. That video did really good things for them. After they picked up Alan Sacks, the manager, one of the things they had in mind was to do a promotional documentary. It was made independent from the band and the record label. Tom Davis, the producer on the short and the feature had been approached. We saw all the exciting things that would happen.”
In organizing the feature, Meyer based his initial decisions upon the short. “Some stuff in the very beginning of the feature was from the short. It tells the pre-contract signing era of the band,” said Meyer. “A lot of the things were shot in a direct cinema style. It followed a traditional narrative structure. I followed them last year to build out that narrative structure.”
Surely, signing to Sony Music, one of the three biggest music labels in America, would be a major milestone for any band, much less one whose members cannot drive, cannot vote and cannot legally be employed by most businesses. “They are going through a change that happens – stepping into adolescence without all of the music stuff going on for them,” Meyer divulged. “They are going through changes understanding who they are and building out their identities. On top of that, they are going through the initiation stages of signing a contract and going out and proving themselves and figuring out the identity of the band. Those are massively important, separate from the music aspect.”
Naturally, with a band of juveniles – Unlocking the Truth being fronted by guitarist/singer Malcolm Brickhouse, backed by bassist Alec Atkins and drummer/vocalist Jared Dawkins – the boys’ parents were intimately involved in the documentary’s production. “The parents extended a lot of trust to me in the film I was making,” Meyer revealed. “There are limits in what I have access to. There’s not a lot of knit and grit of business dealings because they want some privacy on that. It was about expressing the experience of what these three guys are going through.”
Shooting from February through October of 2014, Meyer amassed approximately 200 hours of digital files and delved into editing by constructing the documentary’s story. “We had an idea of the narrative concept,” he said of his work with editor Brad Turner. “We saw some points that we needed to hit to make it work. We started editing between halfway and two-thirds through shooting. As we continued to shoot, we saw things we needed to pay more attention to. We built out a lot of scenes in the direct cinema style. We figured out which ones of those carried and which had lasting narrative value.”
Having worked together on Meyer’s first film, the fantasy documentary Darkon, Turner and Meyer developed their own unique shorthand. “We have a good sense of what each other is after,” Meyer explained. “A lot of it was done in a very intuitive fashion. Sometimes, there are surprises. Generally, a lot of it is reductive editing – you lay it out and cull it down to the best stuff. We would work on outlines, and look at the whole picture, and look at themes, making sure that they last through the whole film and kept people engaged.”
Though Meyer’s camera is often inside of vehicles, apartments and boardrooms, many scenes include the expansive audiences in large venues where Unlocking the Truth engages with their fans. “This is a very intimate film and tells the story of a band that most people engage in a very public place,” Meyer stated. “What’s exciting to me about this is that the band and family gave us access into this personal place in a public story, in between the headlines, not just for this band but in general.”
As for the young band members themselves, Meyer noted that there were mixed feelings about them being featured in a full-scale film. “Sometimes, I think they had a lot of fun, and, sometimes, they put up with me,” he confessed. “They knew that they were going through a very important chapter of their life. A documentary made a lot of sense to them.”
With Unlocking the Truth set to play larger venues in 2015, with the documentary potentially in support of their performances, the band members are understandably excited about their futures. For Meyer, he hopes that the band’s fans and general audience relate to his film as a fitting companion piece to the live shows. “Music films have to be more than just music for me to relate to it,” he said. “Dealing with the rest of the world around it. There might be another music-related story that I might do. It’s about a musical theater group in New York that the press called ‘a psychotherapy sex cult.’”
Breaking a Monster is set for numerous festivals and related screenings in early 2015 prior to wider distribution.