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A Band Called Death | Review

Brothers From the Attic: Unexpected Afterlife for Protopunk Band

A Band Called Death Review Poster After cutting their debut album in 1974, “Death” found that nobody in the record industry wanted to touch their music. That is, until 35 long years later when, in a story that yet again confirms the greater strangeness of truth to fiction, “Death” is miraculously rediscovered, their album finally released to great acclaim by music aficionados and fans, and, soon after, A Band Called Death, the richly-textured and deeply-moving documentary under review here by Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett appears about them. The best part of the story is, it couldn’t have happened to a more admirable and engaging group of people than the Hackney brothers and their musically-inclined offspring, most of whom are drummers and in bands themselves.

In choosing the name “Death” for the punk band that David Hackney and his two brothers, Bobby and Dannis, started out of their parents’ house in Detroit, MI in the early 1970s (while the rest of the black community was going crazy for Motown music), David absolutely was not trying to put people off. He and his brothers were coping with the recent death of their father at the hands of a drunk driver; and David was explicitly thinking of death in terms of life, of birth. Still, and much to his brothers’ dismay, the name they went with was “Death,” and this indigestible moniker, on top of the fact that here was an all-African-American band playing very loud and aggressive protopunk music–meant, well, death, for the band called “Death.”

There are so many astonishing twists in Covino and Howlett’s film that it can be hard to unpack it all without getting muddled. But basically there are two major storylines that mutually reinforce each other and both pack quite an emotional wallop. The first and more narrative thread is the one that chronicles the history of the band and its relation to music. The filmmakers deftly weave together home video, archival footage, and audio recordings to give us a portrait of “Death” through the 70s, until the band’s flame-out in the 80s. They then usher us forward to, more or less, the present, when “Death”’ is unearthed by record collectors and pretty soon by the whole world. Music experts and celebrities like Henry Rollins and Kid Rock testify to the undeniable talent of this obscure, hard-driving band that nobody ever heard of till recently, and suggest we should discuss “Death” music in the same breath as The Clash and The Ramones. Whatever you think of the quality of “Death”’s protopunk music itself–it’s certainly energetic and accomplished–its emotional impact is magnified many, many times over by the other major storyline line developed in the film involving the deceased Hackney brother, band leader, David.

David Hackney wasn’t just the lyricist, guitar player, and leader of “Death”–he was a true visionary. He was also a stubborn, mercurial prankster whose insistence on the name “Death” ruined his own and his brothers’ early chances of success; and not long after that, David was an alcoholic chain-smoker who drank and smoked himself to a premature death in 2000. David’s tragic story is told in heartbreaking detail by his big-hearted brothers and other family members. But the one piece that keeps coming back throughout the film–and is guaranteed to stay with the viewer long after the credits roll–is the fact that David insisted shortly before his death that his brothers hold onto the “Death” master tapes, because one day someone would come looking for them.

The same uncompromising integrity that animated the band’s music and caused it to self-destruct back in the 70s also inspired David’s prophecy, which came true one day in 2008. Since “Death”’s rediscovery, Bobby and Dannis (along with a third musician) have gone on tour and, during filming, they were in the process of recording a brand new “Death” album. Incredibly, a number of their genial offspring have also formed their own “Death” cover-band, called Rough Francis, taken from a nom de rock that David used during a short-lived attempt at a solo career. But for all twists and turns in the “Death” story, David’s actual death hangs over the band’s unbelievable journey like something that’s equal parts heavy burden and pure transcendence.

A Band Called Death is as entertaining as it is moving, and has something in common with Buena Vista Social Club (1999), where a discovery of similar moment to music history helped resuscitate the sound and careers of some superb Cuban musicians. But Covina and Howlett’s film tells an even more complex story of family and spirituality which, once you’ve experienced it, you’ll find you can’t sharing with others. For all the heartache and struggle depicted in the film, it ends on an earned and inspiring happy note for all of the documentary’s participants save David Hackney. But, although David’s life ended in disappointment, his spirit very clearly lives on in the hearts of his brothers, Bobby and Dannis, and in the music that he knew would someday, somehow touch many people. Thanks in part to this film, it finally has.

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