Band Called Death, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/31/13 13:43:39

"Death has life after life after Death."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 15: You can say what you want about Detroit - that its main industry needs propping up, that its population is collapsing, that arson seems to be the most popular local activity - but you have to admit, hope does spring eternal: According to the movies, if you pick up a guitar and pour your very soul into making music, you might just be recognized thirty years or so down the line. Last year a documentary re-introduced Rodriguez; this time around, it's African-American proto-punk band Death.

The band formed in the early 1970s, the second group to include brothers Dannis (drums), Bobby (bass), and David (guitar) Hackney. Encouraged by their parents to have broad tastes in music, the boys were influenced just as much by groups like The Who and Alice Cooper as Motown. David, the oldest of the trio (eldest brother Earl didn't play in the band), was the driving force, and came up with the band's name as a spiritual signifier - and when he refused to change that name, a record deal became impossible. They got their master tapes back, put out a single with a mere 500-disc pressing. The brothers kept playing, even after a move to Burlington, Vermont, but went in very different directions from Death's punk-before-punk. And then...

It's the "and then..." part that makes this sort of documentary so much fun. Not that every development is positive - there's no getting around the fact that the interview footage is missing David, who died from lung cancer in 2000 and had moved back to Detroit well before then. But as long as there's something out there, and for all that earlier parts of the movie feature frustration and disappointment, the latter suggests that greatness will eventually make itself known. In the case of Death, it's not the international detective work of Searching for Sugar Man, but a network of record collectors and rock scholars still come into play, and the mechanics of the surviving Hackneys finding out are kind of delightful.

The last act, in many ways, is built to put a stupid grin on one's face even if the music itself doesn't do much for you. In fact, the relatively small amount of the Hackneys' music on the soundtrack is a bit of a surprise and maybe a letdown for those looking for a focus on Death as a band, or even an introduction. That Death had a hard time because they were black guys playing hard rock is asserted as much as it's shown, for instance, and it strikes me that it would be pretty interesting to see what changed and what stayed constant in their music as they went from Rock Fire Funk Express to Death to the Fourth Movement (gospel rock) to Lambsbread (reggae). The film has three distinct legs - Death, life after Death, and rediscovery - and all three feel like there's more detail to be told despite already not feeling like a standard rock-doc.

This is forgivable, though, in large part because the Hackneys are an engaging bunch. Bobby and Dannis tell most of the story without bitterness or disappointment, seeming to have many more good memories than bad, enough so that when David's life turns in a more tragic direction, it hits them hard and they choke up. The filmmakers were fortunate to get a bit of footage of their mother before she passed away, though it's not really an interview. An unusually delightful perspective comes from Bobby's sons, musicians in their own right whose reaction to Death's revival is just fantastic to watch.

Truth be told, I'll probably never listen to Death's lost-and-found album all the way through; punk's not really my thing. That doesn't matter, as "A Band Called Death" is less about punk than family and brotherhood and believing in what you create enough to not compromise and never throw it away. After all, if it's good enough, someone might just come looking for it.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.