Review: 'A Band Called Death' tells a moving documentary story that also rocks
One of the things that we lose when we lose physical media is the thrill of discovery.
Yes, you can browse a streaming media site, and yes, you can still see things that are new to you, and there are ways to encounter things you're not already familiar with in our new media age, but anytime you're relying on something that makes licensing deals for content, you're going to be browsing a much smaller overall pool of possibility than you could in the old days, when record stores would stock things from labels both major and microscopic. There was something amazing about that feeling when you'd spend an afternoon going through bins, only to stumble across some album cover that looked like it had been hand-made, a recording of some band you'd never heard of, on a label you'd never seen before. The feeling of taking something like that home and throwing it on and suddenly having the top of your head cracked open by the sound of the genuinely new… that's something we're losing today, and I think we're poorer for it.
This past weekend, the box-office was ruled by three films that I think are all mediocre and safe and familiar. Whether it was "World War Z" or "The Heat" or "White House Down" that you went to see, you were getting something you've gotten before, served up lukewarm in a new package, and it seems like people were fine with that. There was another film that came out in limited release last weekend that should have been your first choice, though, because it tells a great, human story and it also serves as an introduction to a forgotten corner of pop culture that, in some alternate universe, started a revolution and inspired a whole generation of musicians.
In our universe, Death is a footnote to a footnote, a band that never truly had a moment, a band plagued by personal turmoil and professional frustration. Directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett have made this year's most significant music documentary, and if you saw last year's "Searching For Sugar Man," this would make a great double feature with that. Like that film, this deals with someone who never had their moment, but who absolutely should have. In this case, the story is about Bobby, Dannis, and David Hackney, three brothers who were raised by parents who believed in raising their kids listening to a broad spectrum of music. In Detroit, black culture was primarily Motown and disco and the sort of R&B you'd expect, but the Hackneys were drawn to the harder corners of rock and roll, and when they started playing together as teenagers, the sound that they synthesized from all of their various influences was a sort of proto-punk, genuinely new and completely personal.
David, the oldest of the sons, appears to have been the driven, touched-by-genius engine of the band, and he was the one who took a personal tragedy and transformed it not only into art, but into the actual name of the band. While Death may have been important to David, it proved to be a commercial stumbling block. Their music was undeniable and exciting, and several labels reached out to them. That name kept stalling things out, though, and they spent much of the '70s struggling to make themselves heard. When Clive Davis contacted them, ready to make a deal, David's refusal to change the name of the band torpedoed their chances once again, and gradually, the other brothers became disillusioned with what they were doing.
After a flirtation with a more overtly Christian direction to their music, Dannis and Bobby broke away from David to form their own reggae band, Lambsbread, which enjoyed some modest success. David stood on his principles, and his health began to crumble. He warned his younger brothers that he would be gone soon, and he entrusted Bob with all of the material that Death ever recorded. He died not long after, and that seemed to be the ending for Death.
While the film celebrates the idea of second chances, the notion of restoring this band to their proper place in the musical firmament, it is more than just a record of a band that deserved more attention. It is a deeply moving story of a family that was both bound together and driven apart by art, and it tells this personal story so beautifully that there were several moments that gave me actual chills. We meet the families that Dannis and Bobby have raised, and we see how much the music meant to not only the guys who made it but the kids they raised. The film has a raw emotional edge that it never tries to smooth and soothe. It is very painful at times, but it's the pain of catharsis, the pain of seeing people accomplish things on a totally different timetable than they planned. It is a movie positively laced with pain and disappointment, but that also acknowledges that there is hope as long as you are alive, and that when we create art, we extend our lives in ways we can barely imagine. You can be long gone from this planet and still reach and out touch a new person in a very genuine and profound way. When I listen to a band called Death, what I hear is a celebration of life, an explosion of raw creativity, a band that had no compass to tell them where to go or how to make their music. When I listen to a band called Death, I hear hope and joy and love and passion. When I listen to a band called Death, the tears I shed are tears of sorrow for David who never got to see how much his music could mean to people and tears of happiness for Dannis and Bobby finally getting to see the music connect and tears of humility that comes from being reminded that anyone, anywhere, given the right support, can create something brand-new, something that matters, something that was so great that it could not be killed.
You can see all the various ways that "A Band Called Death" is available here, and I highly recommend it. It's another home-run pick-up for Drafthouse Films, and a truly lovely movie. Now excuse me… I'm going to go crank up "Politicians In My Eyes" and imagine a world where Death thrived and inspired and expanded, a world where the Hackneys are celebrated as pioneers instead of struggling to get by. My guess is that it would have been a beautiful world, and I thank the filmmakers for giving me even a glimpse of it.
"A Band Called Death" is available now.