Just like millions of teenagers, Brandon Mendenhall had a pair of eureka moments that convinced him to dedicate his life to metal. There was the first time he heard Korn's debut album — "Who is that? Where can I get it?" — and a similarly visceral response to Panera's "Drag the Waters:" "[The guitar was] so simple, yet so heavy and so aggressive. I was like, yes!"
Riff-heavy records like these encouraged Mendenhall to pick up a guitar and learn to play himself. But here his story diverges from the norm: Mendenhall was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disability that hinders motor skills and coordination. At least one doctor told him he would never play an instrument. Despite the discouragement, Mendenhall learned the guitar, eventually started his own group, the Mendenhall Experiment, and obtained a deal with Lucent Records. That journey is now the subject of a new documentary, Mind Over Matter, which debuted in New York earlier this month at the ReelAbilities Film Fest — the largest festival in America to spotlight the narratives of the disabled.
"I want this film to be a testament to perseverance," Mendenhall says, speaking with Revolver before the ReelAbilities Fest screening. "For people to realize: Don't give up. If you keep picking away at it, picking away at it, picking away at it, you're gonna make something of yourself."
Mendenhall crafted Mind Over Matter with director Sébastien Paquet, whom he met at an event for Korn fans 14 years ago. Paquet had come to the U.S. from France with the goal of becoming Korn's photographer and videographer. "He had just moved to L.A., and I'd just moved to L.A.," Mendenhall remembers. "We didn't know anybody, so we became friends."
Paquet got his gig, but four years ago, he decided he wanted to expand his skill set and "focus on directing and storytelling." "One Christmas morning," Paquet recalls, "I had a lightning bolt moment — I've been friends with Brandon for years, and he has the most fascinating underdog story. He's my friend, but even if he wasn't, I would want to tell that story." He called Mendenhall and set up a meeting to talk about some sort of biographical project — probably a short film. "The meeting was supposed to be a 30 minutes," the guitarist says. "But it ended up being eight hours of me baring my life story on tape."
Much of that life story appears in Mind Over Matter. Mendenhall was born in a trailer park in Birmingham, Illinois, and bullied intensely as a child due to his disability. Hearing Korn marked an inflection point: "He saw something in that type of music: A release of that built up anger that could go into something positive," Paquet says.
Korn influenced Mendenhall in two crucial ways. First, when he researched the band, he found out that James "Munky" Shaffer had picked up a guitar after severely injuring a finger; this encouraged him to pursue the guitar despite the limited mobility in his left hand. Second, Mendenhall became such a serious fan that he got a tattoo of both Shaffer and lead guitarist Brian "Head" Welch on his back. This tattoo made a distinct impression when he met group members after a gig. "I don't remember a lot of things in my past — the first 10 years of Korn," admits Welch, who was drinking heavily and doing lots of drugs during Korn's heyday, at one point during Mind Over Matter. But he remembered Mendenhall. "Not a lot of people got our faces tattooed on them," Welch says.
Mendenhall encountered Korn periodically over the years, and he now calls Shaffer "a mentor, the guy I go to when really big stuff is about to happen." The band's members appear often in Mind Over Matter. "When they saw how much their music impacted Brandon's life, [their involvement] was a no brainer," Paquet says. "Korn has never ever ever been about just music. Their music is salvation for so many people. They make it a point to meet all these fans at every show. They know that's what they're on this earth — whatever they can do to give back. Anything positive, they want to be a part of."
After graduating high school, Mendenhall's interest in music led him to Full Sail University in Florida to study engineering, and then to an intern position at the famous Westlake Studios in Los Angeles. But his attempts to get into the music business in Los Angeles were repeatedly thwarted. Mendenhall couldn't drive, so he couldn't become a studio errand boy. When he attempted to audition for bands, they weren't interested in a guitarist with a disability. Shaffer advised Mendenhall to start his own group, and the Mendenhall Experiment was born.
Leading a band brought its own challenges. "It's hard to find the right combination of people that would take a step back, see the project for what it is, what it could be, and not what they wanted it to be," Mendenhall explains. "We would get going, play a few shows, start recording, then somebody's ego gets out of line and they try to take over the band and meld it into their own thing."
Mendenhall says his band has fallen apart six separate times, forcing him to begin again from the beginning. "A common problem that I have," he continues, "is because my playing is limited, I would get into conflict with the different lead guitar players, who would want to play more complicated stuff. It's like, 'Dude, I can't play that.'"
Instead of showboating, the Mendenhall Experiment emphasizes the type of riffs that hooked Mendenhall when he first heard Pantera — "so simple, yet so heavy and aggressive." "The beauty of the band is that it's based around my own physical abilities," the guitarist says. "There's a process of keeping my parts simplified enough to where I can play them and we can continue forward. But if you put our record next to anyone else and you don't know the story, you won't listen and say, that's a disabled record, that music sounds disabled."
In Mind Over Matter, at the same time as Mendenhall navigates fraught intra-band politics, he battles his disease. Paquet follows the guitarist into doctor's appointments and medical evaluations. Mendenhall has had 10 corrective surgeries to date. Cerebral palsy hinders his left foot, and walking across Los Angeles during his first stint in the city aggravated the condition, forcing an operation. Performing too much with the Mendenhall Experiment after a recent surgery prevented the attempting bone fusion from taking hold.
But despite this, Mind Over Matter is filled with small triumphs. Mendenhall is the subject of a front-page story in his local newspaper; in one of the documentary's most emotional scenes, Paquet films as the guitarist brings a copy of the article to his mother and grandmother. "The camera is a little shaky because I was crying myself as I was shooting," Paquet says. "It sums up his struggle and his journey perfectly." Mendenhall also gets to record with Shaffer, serves as the opener for Korn's headlining set at the Aftershock Festival in 2016, and seems to have a stable band lineup, at least for now. The Mendenhall Experiment released a self-titled EP through Lucent last year. A full-length is in progress.
Paquet believes a film about dealing with disability is more now important now than ever. "We live under such a disgusting administration who mocks and steps on people who have not been born in luxury," he says. "If it's a time that this film needs to come out, it's in this administration for sure. You have to make those voices be heard even louder then before."
To that end, Mendenhall and Paquet are working the film festival circuit, "knocking on these distributors' doors so this film can reach your living rooms via a streaming partner that rhymes with Flix." After each viewing, they allot half an hour for a Q&A session; usually it stretches to an hour. At the Los Angeles Documentary Film Festival, they won awards for Best Cinematography, Best Screenwriting and an audience award due to a minutes-long standing ovation that brought Paquet to tears.
Mendenhall wouldn't mind if the film raised the Mendenhall Experiment's profile, as well. "We're helping people," the guitarist says. "And if this helps my band, too, that's great."