Editor’s Notes: A Band Called Death (2012) opens in limited release this weekend.
What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s the question that plagues your childhood and strikes fear into your soul as you reach adulthood. We have this sense that every person is put on this planet to do something; it’s figuring out what that is that is just so hard. When I was little I thought I wanted to be a firefighter and then I caught just enough of Backdraft to change my mind. As we grow we leave a trail of broken dreams and muted expectations in our wake until we light upon the one thing that will carry us to our end. To dismiss your hopes is a depressive actuality that many of us are forced to face, but A Band Called Death shows that the best dreams find a way to stay alive.
To dismiss your hopes is a depressive actuality that many of us are forced to face, but A Band Called Death shows that the best dreams find a way to stay alive.
In the early 1970s Detroit, Michigan was the home of Motown. Hitsville U.S.A. is responsible for everyone from Aretha to Michael and a genre of music that is enjoyed to this day. Meanwhile, in the spare bedroom of a small house three teenagers were inventing a genre all their own. The brothers called themselves Death and they were not only the first all black punk band, but the first punk band period, years before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. The band’s name and a culture of differing expectations prevented the trio from making it big, but time has a way of fostering discovery.
The initial premise isn’t quite as unbelievable as it purports. Teenagers form bands; that’s just something that happens. The part that adds just enough salt to the dish is the devotion these teens have to the band. Oldest brother David Hackney is a visionary in the maddest way. His brothers, Bobby and Dannis, are clearly following him. David, despite his present absence, is the largest figure in the film. Even in its earliest minutes we come to know David as his brothers describe him and the way the neighbors painfully and humorously remember him. For all intents and purposes, David is Death. Without him the band would not exist and his complete devotion to the vision is often baffling. His utter refusal to bend is definitively frustrating, something that can be seen even in his brothers’ modern day recollection of the events, but results in unadulterated beauty. The music that the band created was ahead of its time and holds up to this day. Perhaps if David had allowed the band to change they would have gained some notoriety, but I highly doubt that we would be talking about them today.
The construction of the film will surprise you. You have come to this party for a rock doc, an account of this band’s struggle and strife filled journey. However, the film is far more complicated than that. As soon as you are introduced to the band, it becomes evident that the true focus is not the music, but their heart. The bureaucracy of the music industry rears its ugly head as the talent of Death isn’t questioned, with executives instead dismissing them because of a series of unfortunate labels. They judgmentally look at the group as if browsing a bookstore. They are black, playing punk rock with a less than appetizing name; so why bother to even give their music a listen? But this can only carry us so far before feeling like little more than a VH1 Behind the Music. Just as the film begins to approach a stale point it makes the slightest of tweaks to maintain your attention. The group is an extension of the boys’ family and the blind faith in each other that they relentlessly cling to is refreshing. The film is at its most engaging when we are with the people. The Hackneys are a delight to be with and their deep abiding love and trust in one another is a marvel; it clearly is so ingrained within the family makeup to carry on for generations.
The construction of the film will surprise you. You have come to this party for a rock doc, an account of this band’s struggle and strife filled journey. However, the film is far more complicated than that.
The documentary is a tough thing to do right. It can be very hard to avoid tripping into boredom when you don’t have the crutch of bombastic set pieces. The story has to be tight, interesting and presented in a way that involves the audiences rather than feeling like simply a string of interviews. First time directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett do plenty to keep your attention. Utilizing the charisma of the Hackney brothers as frequently as their eternally listenable music, the duo keeps the film in constant motion. Much of the band’s story is related through pictures with an unfortunate lack of video footage. The duo breathes life into the photos adding the subtlest of movement to keep the proceedings from drifting into slideshow tedium. One photo of a brother smoking is particularly entrancing in its beauty. The direction creates an excitement that permeates the proceedings, rolling through the screen like an incoming tide that washes over the audience.
Finding your place in the world is no easy task. You dream of doing something that you are passionate about and seeing success. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to go out and fulfill their dreams. A Band Called Death shows that persistence may be your best course. With a story of perseverance in the face of adversity, the documentary astounds in its commitment. The central brothers are charming and have an effortless humor that will have you rooting for them. The story of brotherly love and unyielding faith at the film’s center is the only thing more enjoyable than Death’s music. It never feels boring; constantly moving at a rapid clip and even finds a way to make its photographs a wonder to admire. As the film reaches its conclusion, the story comes full circle and inspires nothing but happiness. A Band Called Death is a beautiful film about a groundbreaking band sandwiching an exquisite story of family devotion and love. For once, you’ll be thankful to have Death in your life.
[notification type=”star”]90/100 ~ AMAZING. A Band Called Death is a beautiful film about a groundbreaking band sandwiching an exquisite story of family devotion and love. For once, you’ll be thankful to have Death in your life.[/notification]