SIFF Film Review – A Band Called Death
I’m in a pretty ridiculous phase right now where I hate listening to classic rock music, or really anything I consider an “oldie,” including the punk rock music I listened to ceaselessly in the ‘80s. It’s ridiculous because the only music I do want to listen to right now is hard bop jazz from the 1950s; talk about freaking oldies. (And “The Werewolf of London” over and over again because I have obviously lost my mind.) So, I took the opportunity to watch A Band Called Death — which recently played at the Seattle International Film Festival—to hopefully spark my interest in the music I used to love so much. It’s about a 1970s Detroit band that managed to sound a lot like early punk rock. However, not only were these guys situated far away from the New York scene, they were three young Black guys raised in the city that was known for fostering the Motown sound.
The first half of the movie deals with the story of the Hackney Brothers: David, Bobby, and Dannis. Raised in a religious household that valued music and personal expression, the boys were encouraged by their parents to pursue their interests, and in 1971 formed a band that would eventually become Death. Living in Detroit, it was natural for them to evince an interest in the smooth sounds of R&B, but they eventually succumbed to harder fare such as The Who, Queen, and Jimi Hendrix. Add in some exposure to Alice Cooper, and the Hackney Brothers found themselves wandering down a pretty unexpected path. A lot of their friends questioned their interest in hard rock music, since that sound was for White folk, but the brothers, especially David, were dedicated to going where this path led. David—the visionary—wanted to call the band Death, focusing not on the negative aspects of the word, but using it to express his philosophy regarding existence. The band gained some fans, and even recorded a demo, but were unable to gain traction because of their name. Asked to change it, David refused, and because his brothers supported him (even though they would have been willing to change the name in a heartbeat) they kept the name and passed on their chance to release the record. The brothers continued as Death in Vermont until 1980, when they changed their name to The 4th Movement, but once again had no success. David moved back to Detroit without his brothers, and died in 2000 of lung cancer.
Fast-forward through the second half of the movie, which shows how various record collectors discovered the Death single, and eventually the band gains enough attention that their master tapes are taken out of the attic and given a proper release. The words “punk” and “proto-punk” are bandied around a lot during this section, and I think this is where the film sort of misses the point. Even though these guys sound a lot like early punk, not only can they not be considered punk, I don’t even think they can be considered proto-punk. They are obviously not punk not only because they are too early, but their existence in Detroit was far removed from the areas where punk would take hold and then later spread. I don’t think they can be classified as proto-punk either, because the bands that are generally considered proto-punk like The Stooges and The Velvet Underground were concrete influences on the later punk sound. I think this band is even more interesting, because by some freak of fate or vision, their music embodied the sound—and some of the issues—of punk rock without even knowing what was going on in New York. Maybe punk wasn’t just a reaction against Thatcher and Reagan; maybe it was a logical path for rock to go? I dunno. It’s like when two different inventors or scientists make the same discovery at the same time, but without being aware of each other’s work. I think the directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett missed a very interesting opportunity here.
I also never quite got a proper sense of David, who was the band’s driving force. His brothers call him a genius, and you can certainly see that he was following a certain vision of what the band would represent, but they are a little hazy on the details. I never got a true sense of who he was and what he was trying to do. Because the sound of the band was barreling down that new direction, it would have been fascinating to understand more of the why behind it.
Even though I had a certain amount of frustration with this film, I totally recommend it. It does a good job of showing the love between the brothers, and I was especially touched by their motto “back your brother.” It wasn’t something they could always do, but they at least tried to stick together as long as they could. They had their faith and they had each other, and both of those things helped them end up in a really interesting place.
Final Grade: B-