Every kid’s dream becomes every kid’s nightmare in this documentary following the band Unlocking The Truth’s premature bid for stardom with the help of a major record deal and some clueless adults. It not only tells a compelling human story, but revealing all the ticks and tricks that make mainstream pop music seem so manufactured.
The story, which you may or may not know, is that Unlocking The Truth is a heavy metal band of three African American middle schoolers from New York City whose YouTube videos got passed around a zillion times. When television producer Alan Sacks (he created Welcome Back Kotter) sees it, it screams opportunity, and he immediately goes about signing the guys to Sony for a record deal. Upon inking that deal, though, Sacks begins the image shaping, the micro-managing, changing and streamlining many of the aspects of the band that made the original videos so appealing to people, to the dissatisfaction of the band members themselves.
And while this is the specific story of the three kids in Unlocking The Truth — and their parents, who are trying to do the right thing, though understandably not always sure what the right thing is — it also reveals the process within the music industry that grooms pop acts for consumption and profit. Thanks to the access that director Luke Meyer was able to get, we get to see the cynical way in which our pop stars are formed, by taking advantage of the naive dreams of the young and starry-eyed.
As it turns out, though, Unlocking The Truth, despite their age, are not entirely naive. Drummer Jarad Dawkins is more professional than many adults in a variety of callings, and guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse knows when he’s being swindled or used as a gimmick, and isn’t afraid to point it out on several occasions. And that’s why, as depressing as this documentary could be, it’s actually highly amusing, filled with the raucous sweetness of the band and the energy they bring to the screen.
But they’re also not entirely musically formed — who is in middle school? The problem there is that what Sacks and the Sony people effectively do is make sure there is no natural musical growth. Any innovations become imposed ones, brought on not by collaborative musicians, but people in the business of selling, so they are working from a catalog of tropes and cliches designed to bring in quick bucks. There is no wider scope cast on the band’s music, and the only real deference to their personal quirks and strengths involve making them sellable. It’s more about their stage outfits than the songs they perform.
If you ever thought that the rock and roll was not under the strict control of old white people without a clue, that it really was about rebellion, you might be disappointed about the revelations here. Sacks saw an sellable idea when he saw that YouTube video, and allowed the camera to capture the proof — when it comes to modern pop music, the music itself is the last consideration on the list. Thankfully, the music industry’s failure is documentary film’s victory.