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Review: ‘A Band Called Death’ Documentary

Artistic Integrity. Full Circle. All heart. These terms are a summation of both the band and the film that exposes their compelling story.

Artistic Integrity. Full Circle. All Heart.

As writers, especially in music, we use these terms often. Rarely do all three connect as wonderfully as in the new documentary A Band Called Death. No, this is not the story of death metal icon Chuck Schuldiner, but rather the complicated tale of a band that predates everything we thought we knew about punk rock. Formed in 1971 in Detroit, Michigan, Death was a three piece, busting out MC5 and Stooges type garage rock, and doing it slightly ahead of what would become known as the “punk movement”. When their original, self pressed 45, was rediscovered, the band enjoyed a resurgence in 2009. From that resurgence comes A Band Called Death, a film that, like the band, breaks a few taboos.

Of our three terms, lets start with Artistic Integrity. A Band Called Death, eliminates a music doc nor by removing the litany of “rock experts” we’re usually forced to sit through. Instead of the musical elite explaining to us simpletons why Death was so important, the filmmakers smartly decide to focus on the story of the three brothers, and how the importance of family kept this visionary band alive.

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For the first half of the film we see the world only through the brother’s eyes. A Band Called Death goes back to the beginning and presents an unflinching look at the trials and tribulations of Bobby Hackney (bass/vocals), Dannis Hackney (Drums), and the driving creative force behind Death, the late David Hackney (guitar). To sidestep the tried and true blueprint of music documentaries instantly makes A Band Called Death more interesting than most.

Artistic integrity, within the brothers, starts at an early age. Raised in the motorcity, the birth place of Motown, the Hackney brothers were allowed to experience all kinds of music by their loving, open minded parents. In one scene, the surviving brothers reminisce about their father making them watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. As the sixties music scene grew, the Hackney’s became inspired as much by Alice Cooper as Berry Gordy. In love with the straight, hard driving style of rock n roll, the brothers formed the band, Rock Fire Funk Express. Today three black kids involved with a garage punk band would ruffle few feathers. In the seventies, it was unheard of. The Hackney’s were met with resistance right from the start.

Tragedy tends to shape our destiny, and it works to shape the Hackneys. Their father, the head of the family, a man they loved and worshiped, dies in freak accident. The toll on the family is significant, especially on David. The demons begin there for him, and his genius often finds itself at odds with both his brothers and the future of the band. The most significant issue is the name change to Death, which David forces on the band after their father dies. His concept is positive, creative and interesting, but in the disco and funk seventies, all people see is a dark and negative mood killer. David doesn’t care, he pushes on with his vision.

Death record songs, impress a few small labels, and manage to generate a bit of interest. In 1974, they step into legendary sound studio United Sound, and record their first album. Interest in putting the record out is minimal. Nobody wants to touch a black rock band with the name Death. David Hackney is unwavering, even when offered a substantial record deal by Clive Davis if they change their name, David sticks to his guns. It costs them the record deal, and the band is forced to put out a limited run of 45s for the song “Politicians In My Eyes b/w Keep On Knocking”.

From there, the Hackney brothers undergo a constant barrage of hard times. They move to Burlington, Vermont, where terrified local police, thinking they’re a street gang, almost immediately try running Death out of town. In 1977, after years of rejection and false starts, Death call it a day. David moves back to Detroit, while his brothers remain in Burlington, eventually forming the reggae band Lambsbread. Times passes, the performing brothers manage to eek out a living, while David continues to write, dream, and battle his demons in Detroit. In 2000, he succumbs to lung cancer, but not before giving the Death master tapes to Bobby proclaiming, “One day the world will come looking for this music.”

Bringing us to full circle. The next stage in the life of Death is no less than astounding. Bobby and Dannis Hackney go on with their lives. Bobby and his wife have three sons who all become music lovers. As their sons grow up, they discover a love of punk rock. Not because of their fathers old band, simply because that’s the music inspiring them. The film shows the three boys sporting shirts from Black Flag and Earth Crisis, unaware they are fans of a genre their fathers helped to create.

Pushing the full circle idea even further, is the happenstance resurgence of Death. Through a serendipitous line of events that is too detailed to go into, the original 45 finds its way into the hands of a few dedicated record collectors. One collector puts the two songs online, causing a wave of attention. A friend, buzzing on this band Death who are so amazing, convinces his buddy Bobby Hackney JR to listen to the mp3s. Hackney JR has no idea he’s about to hear his father sing. The moment is surreal, as Hackney JR realizes his father is a founding part of the music he holds so dear. In the film, Hackney JR recalls calling his father and yelling “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME!”. Why, because the surviving members of Death had no idea they were so important, only their late brother understood the power.

Recruiting his three musician brothers, and some other friends, Bobby Hackney JR forms a band to play Death’s music to a new audience. What to call the band? Oh, wait, did late brother David have the nickname Rough Francis? Is that not a great name for a band? BAM! The younger brothers Hackney, using their late uncle’s nickname, begin playing their father’s music live. Full circle almost seems like an understatement. This is the kind of story we as record collectors, and music fans, live for. Bringing us to the final term, All Heart.

A Band Called Death is a film that is all heart, as was the band it looks to explore. I say this because they never turn away from difficult moments. When the two brothers are asked to reunite and go on tour playing Death songs, it’s uncomfortable. Bobby Hackney and Dannis had been all for changing the band’s name. When Death broke up, they moved on to reggae. In short, after Death ended they never gave it much thought. Only David, the driving force, kept the dream alive. It was his dedication, and belief in the band, that kept the master tapes in safe condition to be rediscovered by a world he knew would want them one day.  Now the dream was coming to fruition, and David was not alive to see it. Only his two brothers, who never believed in Death as strongly as David, get to experience the rewards. It’s a difficult paradox, one the film could have skipped over, but instead hits head on.

Watching the brothers contemplate, and gete very emotional, over the duality of excitement and sadness, is palpable. It’s also one of the strongest points in the film. A Band Called Death is all heart because it believe in itself, and the story, enough to show everything, warts and all. Midway through this documentary you will forget you’re watching the history of an overlooked band, instead becoming deeply involved with the Hackney family for multiple generations.

While most music docs rely heavily on the presence of “names”, to relate to us why said band is so important, here the few of those that do pop up feel intrusive. Death is such a powerful band, the Hackney story so moving, that I don’t need Henry Rollins, ?uestlove, or, even more head scratching, Elijah Wood, to explain the band to me. Not to sound rude, but I don’t care what they think.

Artistic Integrity. Full Circle. All heart. These terms are a summation of both the band and the film that exposes their story. I urge anyone with a passion for music to see A Band Call Death as soon as possible. I also urge future music documentarians to watch this movie and take copious notes.

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