What’s a little jarring about filmmaker Luke Meyer is how he’s so immediate. Five minutes into our afternoon call, we’re already discussing deep-seated issues and themes that usually take some time to bubble up. It’s refreshing, but admittedly a surprise. Then again, it takes a no-nonsense type of person to make gripping documentaries like 2006’s Darkon, 2009’s New World Order, and especially this year’s Breaking a Monster.
His latest is a rock ‘n’ roll documentary that chronicles a year in the life of Unlocking the Truth, the Brooklyn metal troupe consisting of three black 7th graders who went from guerrilla performances in Times Square to a record deal with Sony valued around $1.8 million. For 92 minutes, Meyer closely follows the footsteps of Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, and Alec Atkins as their manager Alan Sacks carves them into The Next Big Thing.
“Watching these teenagers being shuffled from meeting to meeting, dressed in the eyes of leathery rock ‘n’ rollers, and promised all sorts of lunatic success is both exhausting and overwhelming,” I wrote in my positive review of the film, which premiered at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. I ultimately concluded that Meyer offers “a stark portrait of how they’re dealing with not only success but growing up.”
My initial hesitations about the film stemmed from the fear that this may have been a well articulated project on behalf of the record label. However, listening to Meyer speak about his work was refreshing in that he confirmed much of what I originally thought while walking out of the Stateside Theater following the premiere, which in turn made me appreciate the project even more.
How was your experience at South by Southwest this year?
I think it went really well. It’s a festival we’ve played several films at in the past, so it’s just a good place to go — feels like home.
Unlocking the Truth played a few shows during the festival. Did you get to see them?
I caught two of them. I went to one there and then I caught more of a real show at a venue in Houston.
Having spent over a year with them, I would imagine you’d want a break.
Well, I haven’t watched them play live for months now. I haven’t been shooting since the fall.
But you’ve probably been sifting through hours of live footage in the meantime.
There’s been a bit of that, but they’re also developing. When I saw them play in Texas, they had songs I hadn’t heard before. I think that’s always going to be the case with them. If I’m not keeping on them like I was when I was shooting, they’re going to pop up with something that surprises me.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get involved in this project?
We made a short film. It was really popular, and it helped the band progress a lot. The process of making it was a lot of fun. We had a good time with the guys, they got to know me and Tom [Davis], my producer, and it was just all in all a good experience. That was mid-2013. I didn’t have a whole lot of contact with them after that for a bit, although there were people who had seen the short who were contacting me and telling me how it would be a great road to success story as a feature-length documentary. But it never had enough going on for us to want to do it. It just didn’t have all the parts that made it interesting for us.
At the same time, the short and some of the band’s other viral videos gained more and more press for them, including an article in Spin, which Alan Sacks discovered and got really excited about. So he goes and meets them and starts working with them and lining up a lot of stuff. One of the things he wants to put together is a promotional documentary to tie with their record deal and the album. The band and family said, “If you want to make a documentary, talk to the people who made the short.” So we had a meeting with Alan about the idea of a documentary and he just basically told us all the stuff that was beginning to happen for the band.
It was clear that these guys were in a whole different place than the last time we checked in with them. Suddenly, we could see that there was this interesting story in front of us and, really, in front of the band. It would be an introduction into this industry through the kids’ perspective, and that was something that really intrigued me and Tom — making this entry-level feature film. We then only agreed to do it once we were clear that we could get the thing put together without financing from the record label, have creative independence from the record label and the band, and make something that was a stand-alone film and not, you know, a marketing product.
That was my only hesitation while watching the film. I kept wondering about Sony’s involvement and whether they were scrupulous on anything you were filming or if they were concerned with the final cut.
People from the record label didn’t see the cut until it was locked and finalized, probably just shortly before SXSW. The band had seen it earlier.
But you’re sitting with them in the conference rooms, during meetings, amidst heated arguments. Were there any restrictions during filming?
There were certain things that we weren’t given access to like some business meetings — a handful of little things, some of which I don’t even know what they were because we weren’t allowed in there — but it was an ongoing process of finding out what was happening and trying to gain access to, or finding out why it was a good part of the story, and then sometimes they would grant us access and sometimes they wouldn’t.
The record signing, the contract signing, was something that we always knew we needed to shoot. It was momentous; it was what kicked off the story in a lot of ways. Everyone saw that we couldn’t tell the story without it. People were in support of the project, and they still are.
It’s clearly a very complicated story that shows some stuff that doesn’t cast the best light in certain places, but part of the way that people have always approached the band is this idea that they’re real kids, even when some of the rough edges are getting sanded down.
I think the idea of having a very real feeling film was always accepted on that level, but that didn’t match with how the kids were being addressed. And I’m sure some people don’t feel great about some parts of it, but I think that is why we got the access we did and that’s also why I think, by and large, it’s being accepted by people.
What were some areas of their journey that surprised you? That whole impromptu dance scene after they sign was bizarre. It felt like something out of Extras.
There is a bunch. It’s funny. That scene is very interesting because that band is another band that is attempting to get signed by that Sony subsidiary, so they’re in their meeting, and the record associates ask them to do a performance for the guys. So, it’s like everything in the film, part of it is like, “Well, show what you can do.” It’s simple on one side, it makes perfect sense, and then on the other side, it’s so bizarre. I think you can say that sort of thing about a lot of the company. You get the rationalization behind why that just happened but it’s really weird.
Were there ever any times you felt the urge to step in?
There were times where I thought they weren’t making the best decisions, and because of my approach to this film, I had to let them make those decisions. Plus, it’s not my place. The film was about the course that they were on and I wanted to watch that. The last thing we shot was the music video at the very end of the film, and before we even left that day, I started talking to some of the parents and Alan about some issues that aren’t even in the film, giving my opinion on things that they were trying to decide. Immediately, I felt like I didn’t need to be doing that. I didn’t want to create an environment where they were worried or even thinking about my judgment. I’ve become really good friends with these people over the years, so I would just tell them what my reasoning was once I could approach them in a more normal way — the way you’d approach someone when you’re not making a film.
Much of this all occurs in real time, meaning that the story’s unfolding as you’re filming. Did you at least have a blueprint for any of it?
There’s no way to have a true blueprint for the whole thing when it’s about things that are happening as they happen, but about halfway through the filming is when we started editing, and from that point on, we were able to start looking at the shape of the film. I had ideas about the shape of the film before that, but once we started actually putting it together, we started really being able to develop the shape of the film. And then we started looking for what would be a good end event for the film, and we were looking at them shooting a music video, which was long in the planning, and also the release of their first single.
We were sort of at the mercy of whichever one was going to happen. They still haven’t released their single yet, but we have the music video that they shot in the fall, which is also not released yet. The filming of it was something that we were able to include in the last scene. Really, there was planning leading up to that, thinking, Okay, this is them stepping to another level of doing stuff. There’s a huge crew, it’s a clear lineation of a development they’ve gone through, and there’s a lot of nice little features in there that I like too. Early on in the film you see Malcolm getting his hair brushed by his mother … and in that last scene you get to see Jared getting his hair worked on by hair and makeup people.
How did you know when you’d be able to capture certain elements? Each scene unfolds so naturally.
There were a few days we were like, “Today, we’re going to spend the afternoon or something, some given amount of time, and just see what happens.” But those were pretty small in number compared to the other times where it was like, “You guys have this meeting today or this band practice,” and then it goes around that. I think the feeling that you’re getting, and I’m really glad you’re getting it, is more in the way it was shot. The way we approached it stylistically is by shooting it all as direct cinema or cinema verite, where it feels very much like this completely naturally setting — which it is, but it’s delivered much more clearly in the way we shot it. Even though we’re not just hanging out day after day after day waiting for something to happen.
It must have been exciting to watch everyone evolve — especially a character like Alan Sacks.
What came from meeting with Alan was very clear: He is the catalyst for a lot of this change and getting involved is where this stuff comes from. So, in the story of the band, you need that, you need him, you need that manager who comes from the outside and thinks all this stuff that changes everything for them.
He’s so hands-on with the band. Did he ever try to control some of the filming?
Yeah, but he also has a film background. He knows how to make films … how to work stories. That means he had a lot of ideas that he wanted to tell me about. And sometimes there was really good stuff and sometimes it wouldn’t be totally right. He would want me to come to every concert that they play, and I don’t think I need to do that to tell the story.
During South by Southwest, the band dropped one hell of a bombshell to Buzzfeed, admitting that they’d like to leave Sony and get off their contract. What was the reaction behind the scenes?
They did the interview literally an hour before the show at the theater. And, I wasn’t there when they did the interview, so I don’t know how it came up exactly, but I was told like, “Well, they just told Buzzfeed they’re filing to leave Sony.”
That’s so funny because you capture the band’s naive transparency in the film, when they announce their contract to Sony, only to be scolded by Sacks and the executives. So does this news change the ending to the film now? Maybe a post-script change?
I’m definitely considering it. It’s not clear what the resolution to that is, though.
The story of Malcolm, Alec, and Jarad is fascinating, but ultimately, what do you want this film to say?
I think the big question with this film is really, what do we want our stars to be? It’s harder to be cynical about the guys since they are so much more innocent. But you watch them, and they want to move forward into this thing that they’re doing. They want this success. It’s never like they’re against being pushed, and this is the process that they’re going through. It’s not similar to what a lot of other people go through.
One of the film’s most startling scenes is when Alan shows Malcolm a video of a vlogger criticizing Unlocking the Truth for being a gimmick and a transparent form of liberalism on behalf of the studio. What’s surprising is that Malcolm understands this criticism, even agrees with it, but he doesn’t care. He just wants to do what he wants to do. That was very sobering.
There are always different things for different people. There’s always an attraction, but for some people, there’s disappointment. For some people, they’re really burned by the process. Other people are able to stomach it and have wild success, you know. There are a lot of different ways you can come out of it, but it’s complex. It’s not pretty, and I don’t think there’s a pretty story to how a star is made.
Would you consider this a cautionary tale?
You can draw a cautionary tale, for sure, but I think you are also given a window into the excitement of promise — that they could still make it huge. That’s what’s so complex and what I think will fuel people in their position to keep going forward. Because you hit these things and are like, “Oh my God, this part is awful, how the hell am I going to put up with this for my whole career?” and then you move on and, almost in the same breath, you’re like, “Oh, we have the opportunity to really make it.” And if those two things keep playing off of each other in just the right way, you’ll keep working forward with it.
We did some test screenings earlier on, and I think what really strikes a chord with people who are in some sort of creative industry is the story of how you take that creative drive and make it commercial. And, you know, that’s the only way you get to play stadium shows, that’s the only way you get to have the big hit song of the summer — when there’s a lot of money behind it. You don’t get that without entering into this process. Anyone who knows that has to contend with how that makes them feel.
It’s really complicated, though. Right now, there’s this endless war — or perhaps a weird marriage — between the artists and the labels, who are both looking for ways to make money and survive. But is anyone even winning?
I’m not sure it’s a war because I’m not sure there’s a winner. Some wars don’t really have winners, anyway, but I do think a weird marriage might be a better metaphor. Because the two things are stuck together, somehow, and it’s unclear what the dynamic is and it keeps changing. It’s not just with the label and the band, it’s also with the audience, too. How do you feel when a song you like is used in a commercial? Are you happy to hear the song because you get to hear it in the commercial, or does it somehow take away from the song?
These aren’t questions you explicitly ask in the film, but they’re implied. Was it always your intention to tackle the music industry at large?
I still don’t know if I’m able to tackle it. But having it be part of the story was an intention from the very beginning, which is why, like I said, we had opportunities to start a project with something that was not that different a place from where the short film was and trying to actually get to this place, and in that, the rest of the industry wouldn’t be so much of a character because it would be more of a goal.
Something to comment and critique?
There’s a lot to critique the record industry about and a lot of criticism you can throw at it, but it’s more complicated than just pointing a finger and saying that everything’s wrong over there because people still want to be involved in it. Recording artists want to engage in that world and then we as people who listen to music want it to be delivered to us. It’s a machine that has a full mess of problems and is really misguided in certain places, but it’s also something that we are keeping around, for some reason.
We have all the tools to not do it. There are plenty of ways around it. This band is a great example. These guys have YouTube publicity primarily and even without being signed to a record label, they’re raising awareness about their music through Pledge Music — those are the things unsigned bands do. So, in some ways, they don’t even need the backing of the record company, but they still want it because it still elevates them somehow.
It’s the rock ‘n’ roll dream, something most creative adults waved bye bye to a long time ago.
Right, but man, that’s exactly the point. It does fade away, for some of us, and even for those that get that success, well, by the time you get it, you’ve had a lot of understanding of how weird that success actually is, how complex it is. But if you’re 13 and you start to get it then you don’t have any of that, like, coming-back-to-Earth process unfolding, you really are the kid who just thought you were going to be a rock star and then you get to be the rock star.