More than a rock-doc, though it sure does rock.
A Band Called Death
“’Pure rock ‘n’ roll is what they don’t play on the radio.’ That’s what David always said.”
More than a rock-doc, though it sure does rock, Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s A Band Called Death is a story about three brothers whose lives are permeated, inspired, and haunted by the act of death.
In a black neighborhood in ’70s Detroit, when Motown was everything, three black blood brothers—David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney—were playing heavy, out-of-this-world, eardrum-shattering punk rock before the world knew what it was. “They sent people down the street holding their heads!” their older brother, Earl (not a band member) recalls, bellowing a hearty guffaw. They called themselves “Death”. They might as well have called themselves “Commercial Success Can Suck It” or “Record Deal Repellent”—tragically (though not surprisingly) they were never signed to a label due to their off-putting moniker (which David, the band’s staunchly quixotic leader, refused to change.)
They did, however, recorded one album. The master tapes were given to Bobby by David years later. “You gotta keep these” Bobby recalls David telling him. “The world’s going to come looking for the ‘Death’ stuff”. The master tapes ended up being tucked away in Bobby’s attic for decades after the band dissolved. As the recording collected dust, Dannis and Bobby continued to play music together throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s while David befriended the bottle, growing increasingly starry-eyed and hazy as years passed until his eventual death in 2000.
Jump to 2008.
One of Death’s songs, Politicians in My Eyes (from an über-rare 45 the band released), began buzzing in the blogosphere, leading to the band’s original songs finally being released to the masses as “For All the World to See”, a Drag City release. The nephews and sons of the Hackney brothers formed a tribute band, Rough Francis, and Dannis and Bobby (along with guitarist Bobby Duncan, standing in for David) have reformed the band, recording new tracks and touring the country. The eerie thing is, David seemed to see all this coming, an anomaly the brothers explore in detail.
Howlett (an old friend of the band) and Covino let Bobby and Dannis tell their stories honestly, and the film has a definite air of authenticity. You get the sense that the directors have a deep adoration for the Hackneys and their story. Much time is dedicated to letting the brothers plot out the metaphysically-charged family history, which is all enjoyable, though some bits feel inessential. The film is visually uninventive—the images the Hackneys plant in your head are much more interesting than the ones Howlett and Covino provide (when we hear about ‘70s Detroit, we’re shown old photographs of Hitsville and Ford motor factories.)
Circumstance, misfortune, and bad luck have almost certainly robbed us of countless fantastic acts over the years. Some potentially great bands just hit at the wrong place and/or the wrong time. Thankfully, Death has managed to miraculously (ironically) rise from the void of rock obscurity, to the world’s benefit. For some unknown reason, a reason perhaps only David was keen to, the world’s been gifted a phenomenal protopunk record (seriously, check it out) and an excellent cinematic companion piece to boot.