A decade after sisters Desirae and Deondra Brown shared their most horrific secret with each other — confirming their father’s sexual abuse and shattering the picture-perfect façade of the Utah-raised piano act, The 5 Browns — the sisters and their three younger siblings wrestled with a decision.
The question: Would the Brown siblings — Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan — open up their lives, and expose the emotional scars from years of sexual abuse their father, Keith, perpetrated on his three daughters, for a documentary film crew?
“We spent hours debating it, amongst the five of us,” Deondra Brown said in an interview this week. “We ultimately decided that if we were going to do it, it had to be completely honest. We didn’t feel it would help survivors of abuse if we sugar-coated our lives.”
After discussions over several weeks, the five siblings “ultimately decided that we were going to move forward,” to allow filmmaker Ben Niles and his crew into the Browns’ homes and rehearsal space.
The resulting film, “The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness,” tells of the group’s fast fame, the revelation of sexual abuse that put their father in prison, and how the five siblings — all now in their 30s — are moving on with their lives as spouses, parents, advocates and musicians.
“There’s something quite invigorating about realizing how far we’ve come, and that we’re still here,” Deondra said. “We’re still brothers and sisters, we still love each other, we still like performing, and that’s never going to change.”
“With the five of us, we wanted to make sure everybody is comfortable in the places that they are,” Ryan Brown, the youngest sibling, said this week. “If they’re not comfortable speaking to somebody about something personal, that’s OK. There are four others who can answer that question.”
Niles first heard of The 5 Browns in 2004, when he was making a documentary about how Steinway pianos were crafted. “I was looking into interviewing artists for the film, and somebody at Steinway said, ‘You should just interview The 5 Browns. They’re on fire right now,’” Niles said this week.
Niles didn’t take the advice for that film (2007’s “Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037”), but he met them in 2015 for another project with Steinway, featuring pianists performing on the piano maker’s factory floor.
A lot had happened in between. In 2007, while the family was on tour in Japan, Desirae asked Deondra whether Keith had ever abused her. “It was the worst moment in my life to hear the answer,” Desirae says in the documentary. They then approached their younger sister, Melody, who confirmed that she too had been abused.
Ultimately, after attempts to deal with the issue quietly, everything changed on Valentine’s Day 2011, when a Porsche driven by Keith, and carrying his wife, Lisa, plunged 300 feet down an embankment in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Both survived. It soon became public that Keith had been charged in Utah’s 4th District Court with three felony counts, in a plea deal that led to a prison sentence of 10 years to life. He’s now incarcerated at the Utah State Prison, and his first parole hearing is set for 2022. (A call for comment to Keith Brown’s attorney was not returned.)
After meeting the siblings in 2015, Niles talked to a Steinway staffer about the idea of making a documentary on the Browns.
“I was a little bit reticent, because I didn’t think they would be interested in retelling the past,” Niles said. “It didn’t feel like we’d be bringing anything new to life.”
It didn’t take long for Niles to see “there was a lot going on in the present.”
Deondra and Desirae had formed an advocacy group, the Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, lobbying Congress and state legislatures to remove the statute of limitations for sexual assault — to give survivors of abuse, particularly those who were hurt as children, time to cope with their pain and to press charges. (The film includes footage of Deondra testifying before a committee of the Utah Legislature.)
And The 5 Browns were about to record a new album, “Little Tin Box,” their second since Keith’s conviction. The album features music that was important to the five in childhood. The Browns are developing a children’s book to accompany the album.
“It’s a picture book that’s not just for children, but also meant for adults and families to share together,” Deondra said. The book and album should be released in fall 2019, she said, and proceeds will go to organizations that fight child abuse.
A key moment in the film is when the Browns are trying to record a five-piano rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It’s a stressful session, as the siblings argue over tempo and tone — and their Grammy-winning producer, Adam Abeshouse, asks them why they’re recording a piano version of an orchestral work in the first place.
The tension on the rehearsal stage is ultimately resolved. An issue still unresolved is the siblings’ relationship with their mother, Lisa, who remains supportive of Keith.
Niles said he debated about whether to interview Lisa for the film. Once he decided he would, he found out that Lisa wanted to place conditions on what he could ask.
“When I spoke to Lisa, she wanted me to not ask questions about Keith’s ‘incarceration,’ as she put it,” Niles said. “It was a weird position for me as a filmmaker to go in with so many parameters. The 5 Browns put zero parameters on me.”
One sibling, Niles can’t remember for sure who, also warned that if he interviewed Lisa, Keith might try to call in from Point of the Mountain. Sure enough, during Lisa’s interview session, he called.
“While it was a surprise, it wasn’t a surprise,” Niles said.
“We knew it was coming,” Deondra said, adding that the scene shows “a general idea of the environment [we] had to be a part of.”
These days, The 5 Browns are not in contact with their mother, Ryan and Deondra said, and haven’t spoken publicly about her since Keith’s conviction.
“It was difficult to watch her, because we haven’t had a lot of communication with her,” Deondra said. “There is a certain amount of trust that’s breached there. … We are a solid family unit. It’s just unfortunate that we don’t have parents in it.”
Though the siblings are each married and are living apart — Ryan and Gregory both live in the Washington, D.C., area, Desirae is in New York, and Deondra and Melody live along the Wasatch Front — they remain close. Between family gatherings and concert tours, Ryan said, the five usually see each other one week out of every month. (The five are performing in Utah for the first time in a while, Saturday, June 9, at the Kenley Amphtiheater in Layton.)
During editing of the documentary, Niles said he was struck with how “we were seeing the individuality of them, how they were still very much together as siblings and a group, but they are diverging in different directions.”
Ryan said, “What Ben has done with this film has allowed us to speak as a group, but also individually — which is something I feel like we haven’t had a lot of chances to do.”
“It’s a sense of relief for the five of us,” Deondra said, “to realize that it’s OK to be your individual person, and to bring those experiences and your individual personality to the group as a whole. … It’s made us stronger in a lot of ways.”
“The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness”
First screening • Wednesday, June 6, 7 p.m., at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
Second screening • Thursday, June 7, 7 p.m., Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City.
Q&As • All five Brown siblings, and filmmaker Ben Niles, will be in attendance for Q&As after both screenings; Wednesday’s Q&A will be moderated by KUER’s Doug Fabrizio.
Tickets • Free, but all tickets have been distributed; a waitlist queue will open at 6 p.m.
Presented by • Utah Film Center.
The 5 Browns in concert
Where • Kenley Amphitheater, 403 N. Wasatch Drive, Layton.
When • Saturday, June 9, 8 p.m.
Tickets • $29 to $49, online at tickets.davisarts.org.
Presented by • Davis Arts Council.