Nope, not The Ramones, The Clash or the Sex Pistols. Not even Bad Brains. The true punk pioneers were a band called Death, straight out of Motor City, Detroit, and you’ve probably never heard of them until now. Thanks to some obsessive record collectors, a whole lot of serendipity, and a new documentary from Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, Death just might be getting the retroactive respect they are more than overdue. As Henry Rollins states, it’s a great music story and Covino and Howlett have successfully transferred it into an entertaining, moving rockumentary.
Death was formed in Detroit in the early '70s by three brothers: Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney. The film opens with the surviving members, Bobby and Dannis, reminiscing about their childhood and the early days of Death while exploring their old home in Detroit. It immediately becomes clear that the presence of David looms large and and that his boundless energy and unique vision were the driving creative force and motivation in Death’s genesis. Growing up in a spiritual and Motown-loving household, the Hackney brothers rattled the neighborhood with their first rock band, Rock Fire Funk Express (best band name ever?) until a fateful Detroit concert by The Who that inspired David to take the band in a more rock-oriented direction. Death warred with the neighbors over their sound, and the community resistance inspired them to amp up the aggressiveness, developing a proto-punk sound with barking vocals by Bobby.
After their preacher father was killed by a drunk driver, David decided that instead of rejecting death, he would embrace it, changing the name of the band and adopting the idea that death is real as a part of his guiding spiritual vision. They recorded an album at the legendary United Sound Studios in Detroit, but time and time again ran up against rejection because of the band’s name. But David was steadfast in his convictions, and refused to change anything about Death to conform to someone’s idea of what they should be, and he even walked away from a lucrative contract with Clive Davis in order to preserve his artistic integrity. The brothers eventually ended up in Burlington, Vermont, and the band drifted apart; David moved back to Detroit and Bobby and Dannis pursued a career with their reggae band Lamb’s Bread. Death was all but forgotten, and while David’s health declined, he remained steadfast in his belief that someone, someday would be interested in Death. Before passing away from lung cancer in 2000, he even brought the Death master tapes to Bobby’s house and told him he wanted to keep them safe for when someone came calling.
Until this point in the film, “A Band Called Death” has entertained and kept the story moving swiftly along on the sheer charm of Bobby and Dannis Hackney. The two brothers are captivating storytellers with a good sense of humor and are emotionally open with the process (it probably helped that filmmaker Howlett has known them for 20 years). Oldest brother Earl is also a funny and lively presence in enhancing the family stories. The aesthetic relies heavily on interviews with the brothers and family photos stitched together with audio recordings of David and the band. An opening sequence featuring interviews with people like Rollins, Kid Rock, Elijah Wood, Alice Cooper and Questlove immediately establishes the band's current respect in the music community. But once the emotional groundwork is laid, the film ramps up as it lays out the story of Death’s discovery. It feels a little incongruous when the film suddenly introduces a bunch of new characters, those obsessive record collectors who dug up Death, and especially Bobby’s three sons, who play a crucial role in the completely inexplicable tale of how Death was reanimated. It’s a wildly implausible situation that is only manifested through chance, the Internet grapevine and some very determined collectors. But after the film's establishment of David’s unwavering faith in Death, and prophetic messages to his brothers about Death's posthumous appreciation, this coincidental story seems ordained from above.
And that’s really what “A Band Called Death” is about: the steadfast conviction of one visionary artist who never abandoned what he believed in, and the brothers who backed him up and are now helping to keep his memory and his music alive. And damn if the music isn’t some of the tightest, grittiest garage punk you’ve ever heard. The lost Death album has been re-issued by Drag City Records, and you will most likely run, not walk, to pick up a copy of Death For the Whole World To See featuring the scorchers “Politicians in My Eyes,” and “Keep on Knockin’.” It just might not sound the same without the unlikely backstory found in the film “A Band Called Death.” This rock doc rewrites punk history while telling an emotional story about an artist’s spirit and his faithful family. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2012 L.A. Film Festival.