A Band Called Death

A Band Called Death

2013, NR, 96 min. Directed by Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 28, 2013

A Band Called Death is this season’s engaging entry in the burgeoning field of the should’ve/could’ve/would’ve rock documentary. Along the lines of last year’s Oscar-winning doc Searching for Sugar Man, A Band Called Death chronicles the life, death, and rediscovery of a musical act that folded without achieving success only to be exhumed decades later by a seeming quirk of fate. Although the film is never fully convincing about this rock band’s overlooked potential – despite testimonials from the likes of Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, and Elijah Wood – the story of Death sure adds an interesting and virtually unknown footnote to the annals of punk rock.

The three Hackney brothers – Bobby, Dannis, and David – formed the band Death in the early Seventies, and it’s clear from the unearthed recordings that they were a proto-punk outfit that preceded the movement’s great outpouring later in the decade. That they were African-American minister’s kids from Detroit during an era when that city’s Motown Records ruled the pop airwaves only adds to the band’s legend as rock iconoclasts. These black kids, by their own description, were playing “white boys’ music.” Honing their chops in their bedroom rehearsal space and picking a recording studio by throwing a dart at the Yellow Pages, Death was guided by the visionary drive of eldest brother David, who was also responsible for their moniker. As they shopped their demo, many parties were instantly interested in their original sound but put off by their name. According to the film, even hit-making legend Clive Davis was interested in signing them but insisted on a name change, which was a deal-breaker for David. The band dissolved and moved to Vermont. David gave the master tapes to his brothers for safekeeping before dying and experiencing the recognition he was certain would, one day, find them.

That discovery came 35 years later, when the next generation of Hackneys chanced across Death while at a college party. Long story short, a renewed band called Death now performs the music as a tribute and lesson in the byways of rock history. The documentary, additionally, is a captivating story about family loyalty and little explored dimensions of black American culture. It’s chock-full of black-and-white photos and Super-8 home movies, although the narrative is sometimes repetitive, and the final section consisting of the new band’s performances seems more like an EPK than an essential part of the story. Still, A Band Called Death was rousing enough to win an Audience Award at this year’s SXSW and get picked up for distribution by local outfit Drafthouse Films.

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A Band Called Death, Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett

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