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The Brockhampton Documentary Is for the Believers, Not the Skeptics

‘The Longest Summer in America’ covers a turbulent year during which the group expelled a founding member. The self-produced movie, like the band itself, is everything, all at once, as it is.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Longest Summer in America, Brockhampton’s new self-produced documentary about their rise to medium fame, begins with the extremely adolescent group disobeying one of the oldest pieces of parental advice. They’re horseplaying around a pool. The pool is behind the house that the dozen-plus members rent together somewhere in Beverly Hills, and as the camera shakes with the carefree, giddy energy of a home video, a handful of them goad the rest to jump in.

The next thing you see, a few stagy, splashy moments later, is a trio from the Brockhampton family—de facto frontman Kevin Abstract, former member Ameer Vann, and photographer/creative director Henock “HK” Sileshi—sharing the warmth of a single beach towel. Taken from hundreds of hours of raw footage, the scenes suggest that it was all good not too long ago. And it was.

Broadly speaking, if you’re familiar with Brockhampton, they’re “the best boy band since One Direction.” But if you aren’t, they’re difficult to get a handle on. The group began, fatefully, after Kevin Abstract—born Clifford Simpson in Corpus Christi, Texas—posed a question in, the famed Kanye West forum, in 2010: “Anybody wanna make a band?” The group slowly began to take shape with pieces from near and far. They included Abstract’s high school friends Vann and Russell “Joba” Boring; producer Romil Hemnani from outside Hartford, Connecticut; Dom McLennon, also from Connecticut; Bearface from Belfast, Northern Ireland; and a few others. They’d just gotten a house together in San Marcos and were calling themselves “AliveSinceForever” when I first e-met them, as a music blogger who was also working for free and eating ramen noodles dry.

As such I’ve had the strange privilege of watching Brockhampton expand and get famous in real time—I wrote one of Abstract’s first profiles a few years later, in 2016, for which I drove him between label meetings and bought a pricey breakfast that I forgot to expense. He wasn’t even 20 then, but thinking back on it he was never less than sure of himself, and his words were somehow measured, even if the cadence of his speech had the quality of someone who’d given no thought to what he was saying before he said it. He knew how he wanted to be, which was more than I could say for myself at the time. “Pure honesty and creativity,” he said. “110 percent.”

Slam-cut to 2017 and Brockhampton—named for the Corpus Christi street on which Abstract grew up—was 15 members strong, and had established a new home base in Los Angeles. They released three albums last year alone—Saturation, Saturation II, and Saturation III—and improved over each project. To boot, they’d built a large, young, dedicated fan base through their wild live shows, egalitarian approach to song-making, inclusivity, brazen vulnerability, and DIY mythos: “unfiltered” as marketing strategy.

Now, the present: I recently saw the premiere of their documentary in Hollywood along with a crowd that couldn’t have had a median age higher than 22, and though the sound was abrasive and the group later admitted to finishing the final cut hours before they turned it in, it was true to their brand and exactly what their fans wanted. Everything, all at once, as it is. There was a standing ovation as the end credits rolled.

The beginning of Longest Summer—which clocks in at 62 minutes—mainly deals with the sessions for a project first titled Team Effort, which was scrapped and mutated into Puppy, which also never came out. It was a breezy time of free-flowing creativity, illustrated by time-lapse cuts of various members gaming out verses, thumping out chords, playing with a Mellotron, or using the magic wand tool on Photoshop. There are unreleased visuals for an unreleased single which references the group’s reported $15 million deal with RCA. After all the hours they’ve put in, they’re being recognized for their talents. The ease with which their creative process hums along seems both idyllic and dreamlike.

Despite it being one of the immutable laws of physics, you might think that nothing sailing weightlessly upward would expect to crash back down to earth. Yet reality rose up to meet the band at the start of the summer this year. Vann, a founding member who was on the cover of all three of those Saturation albums, was accused of sexual relations with a minor, as well as emotional and physical abuse. The band dealt with this issue clumsily, but then again, so have plenty of others, far more famous and decades their senior. Vann strung together a few apology tweets, and at first Brockhampton would offer no further statement. Then Vann was ousted from the group, and they strained for accountability, which is difficult to reach without transparency. Their public stance was that the rest of the group were lied to, though no one would say, specifically, what they were lied to about.

The documentary explores the aftermath of the controversy. There are a lot of lingering shots on various members as they struggle through what seem like genuine feelings of hurt and betrayal. They break down, their voices falter, they search the middle distance or the ground for answers; there’s a lot of not knowing what to say, or what comes next. They recall their strange and teary Boston Calling live show—their first since Vann’s departure—and maybe May altogether, as the beginning of the end. How well can you know someone you work with, really? What happens when you find yourself responsible for their actions? How do you maintain that winning vulnerability when there are finally right and wrong things to say? These questions aren’t really answered. As a self-produced documentary, Longest Summer presents feelings that are valid but go largely uninterrogated and unexamined, which won’t win skeptics to their cause. After the group goes to Kauai with Ansel Elgort to heal, and they have their cathartic performance on the Fallon show, this unfortunately is still true.

But then, Longest Summer isn’t for skeptics. And one suspects their upcoming major-label debut Iridescence won’t be either. They’re mum on what the sound will be, but the prevailing idea seems to be that positive reviews and potential sales run secondary to documenting the twists, turns, and gut punches of the past year or so. And that everyone will just have to do with that what they will. The leap from novelty act to sustainability isn’t something they’re worried about.

When the lights went up at that screening in L.A., there was a Q&A session, and more than a few of the questions weren’t actual queries but just fans telling the group how much they meant to them. One fan immediately in front of me, wearing the commemorative Brockhampton shirt they’d handed out that evening, jumped up and down to be called on for the last question. He wasn’t, but on the way out of the theater he emptied his Longest Summer–branded popcorn bag and tucked it into his back pocket. Brockhampton will be just fine.