Film Review: A Band Called DeathDetermined and persuasive filmmaking pays off with a moving and remarkable true-life account of groundbreaking musicianship.
Detroit—renowned home of Motown—isn’t the first touchstone associated with punk rock, despite its distinction for producing Death, regarded as the first African-American punk band. While countless docs attempt to make the case for near-forgotten musicians, Death’s unique place in musical history and the fascinating turns the band’s story takes as it winds its way out of obscurity present a promising opportunity for theatrical exposure.
The Hackney brothers—David, Bobby and Dannis—started out playing rock and funk as teenagers, rehearsing at their Detroit home with the encouragement of their parents. Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper and The Who, oldest brother David started leading the band in the direction of harder rock and their sound gradually became more hardcore, taking on the characteristics of prototypical punk rock as the band adopted their fateful name.
Incredibly, they secured a recording contract with their first demo tapes, laying down the tracks for their debut full-length “…For the World To See” in a Motor City studio in 1975. Ironically, the music world never heard the album in that incarnation, after their representatives failed to sell the disc to a distribution company. Arista Records’ Clive Davis did offer to release the recording, but only if the band changed their name, which David flatly refused to do. “If we give them the name of our band, we might as well give then everything else,” he reportedly told his brothers.
With their contract cancelled, the Hackneys attempted to self-distribute singles on 45s, but radio stations passed them over, and with the pressing and marketing costs, the brothers were soon broke and forced to sell off their instruments. Bobby and Dannis relocated to Vermont and formed the successful reggae band Lambsbread, while David remained in Detroit, plagued by his demons and advancing alcoholism, dying of cancer in 2000.
Conventionally, the narrative would wrap up with Death being rediscovered and promoted online by an avid record collector, but instead the film takes a couple more unlikely turns. With the master tapes that David gave Bobby for safekeeping, Drag City finally released “…For the World To See” in 2009 and after nearly 30 years of obscurity, people started giving the group some long-overdue attention.
Although filmmakers Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino rely primarily on a series of generous and introspective interviews with Dannis, Bobby and other family members, along with archival photos and memorabilia, segments featuring Cooper, Henry Rollins and Kid Rock among others demonstrate Death’s visceral appeal. More than any other factor, though, it’s the surviving Hackney brothers’ emotional and enthusiastic reminiscences that prove the most riveting material in the film, particularly their recollections of David and his central role in forming and guiding the band.
The film’s final twist, revealing how the band’s songs are being played live for the first time in decades, proves a moving testament to the enduring power of family ties and groundbreaking music.
-The Hollywood Reporter