A Band Called Death Reviews
How appropriate for this film about the near-forgotten punk rock band, Death, that the entire film is haunted by death. It was something I wasn't really expecting. I was expecting a pretty straight forward music documentary about a band that time nearly forgot, like Searching for Sugarman or Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, but what I got out of a Band Called Death is a movie about death and spirituality. And the result is a film that is better than either of the other films mentioned.
It starts off like Big Star, a film about a band that's future looked incredibly promising, but how its success was tragically short-lived. The third act is similar to Searching for Sugarman, a film about how the songs of this band resurfaced years after their inception. But what sets this film apart is the middle section about the death of one of the founding members of the band, who was also the brother to the other two members.
It becomes this tragic story about how when dreams die, it slowly kills a part of a person. And how despair can only exist when hope is alive. The film spends a lot of time on pondering these issues through the story of David, and I found myself incredibly moved by this story. It really gives the film an edge that typical music documentaries don't have.
If you're a fan of 70s rock, you need to see this film, and even if you're not, do yourself a favor and see this movie. Even if you have to get through the first 30 minutes (which I love, but you may not), the middle section of the film is emotionally powerful.
David was the trio's real fighter for authenticity. Much of the beginning of the movie is about how tough a sell it was to record labels for a band to be billed as "Death", something with the internet and shit nowadays is almost inconceivable that a group named after the negative end of mortality would ever run into that sort of problem. Still David refused to change the name, and his brothers stuck by him, before the other two siblings turned to recording reggae, R&B and even Christian music under various aliases. David died of lung cancer in 2000 after a serious bout with alcoholism. One of his brothers called him a "genius type", and that ultimately the demons got to him.
The best parts of "A Band Called Death" are those in which Bobby and Dannis, in rediscovering years later David's passions -- through anger, family and tears -- come to better understand their brother as a person through his decisions as an artist, as more than someone they simply felt the need to stand alongside out of commitment. "A Band Called Death" is both heartbreaking and -warming because it stands alongside him, too. It's almost fitting that his unfortunate demise occasionally robs the movie from being able to go deeper, grander and darker than death.
Still, the story of the Hackney brothers and their resurgence is quite remarkable and makes for an entertaining and uplifting documentary.
If you are still somehow half-convinced that there is justice in the record industry, and that what you hear on the radio is the cream of the crop from among the many thousands of submissions to record companies, here is the movie that will finally show you what things are really like. In the early to mid-seventies, Death, a band formed by three African-American brothers in the slums of Detroit, toiled in perfect obscurity for five years. They released one 7" single and recorded the masters for an album; they had been signed to Arista, and things were looking up. But then, the album never got released because Arista's A&R guy had a problem with the band's name, which guitarist David Hackney refused to change. As a result, Death were never heard outside one Detroit rock station who briefly played the single the boys had self-released, and they became a footnote in rock history that no one referenced... until 2008, when a copy of the band's 7" showed up on an Atlanta music blog, and all the sudden the Internet realized that these were the guys who invented punk. Before the Ramones, before the Pistols, there was Death, and they made some of the best punk rock you will ever hear.
But, as surviving members Bobby and Dannis Hackney explain (David died of lung cancer in 2000), being an all-black punk band in Detroit in the seventies meant you didn't fit anywhere. The white kids in Detroit were doing proto-punk (think Iggy here) and metal (Alice Cooper), but the black kids were Motown, Motown, and more Motown. And both of those worlds were turning out amazing music, but the idea of anyone crossing that line, well, that didn't work for anyone but David Hackney, and when he did, he didn't do Alice Cooper, he didn't do the Vandellas, and he didn't combine the two, he came up with something entirely different. (Though it should be noted that David, later in his career, would release a solo single whose B side is called "I'll Be Your Doggie". That can't be a coincidence.) And the band killed it. You will hear the samples of their music in this movie and you will most likely be as amazed as I am that this music went unheard for three decades. Death should have been rock and roll royalty.
There are inevitable comparisons to be made with Last Days Here, though the boys in Death didn't have nearly as far to go when coming back into the spotlight; they still play music, when not working on Death, in a Vermont-based reggae band called Lambsbread. None of them took Bobby Liebling's express train to self-abuse, so when interest in the band reignited, in no small part thanks to Bobby's own sons (who, without knowing anything about Death, had formed a Bad Brains cover band in the nineties; punk does run in that family indeed), the surviving members were primed and ready for a comeback. And that is covered here, and it is as triumphant as you know it's going to be, but the real value in this film is the incredible history lesson these guys, and those around them, tell. The people who did become rock and roll royalty (or who should have, like the Dirtbombs) are all here singing Death's well-deserved praises, along with some other folks (Elijah Wood?) and talking about the climate of the time for those who weren't around, and for those of us who were around but too young to be dialed into the music world yet. (In 1973 I still thought my parents' Ferrante and Teicher albums were the bomb. But then I was also five years old.) This is about as perfect as documentary filmmaking gets-the guys behind the camera just get out of the way and let the people in front of the camera talk about the things they know and love the best, and the result is pure and utter magic. This is a guaranteed entry on my Best I Saw list in 2014. **** 1/2
15% of the movie: Too bad the interesting guy in this band died!