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Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was a band called Death. Punk before punk existed, three teenage brothers in the early '70s formed a band in their spare bedroom, began playing a few local gigs and even pressed a single in the hoped of getting signed. But this was the era of Motown and emerging disco. Record companies found Death's music - and band name - too intimidating, and the group were never given a fair shot, disbanding before they even completed one album. Equal parts electrifying rockumentary and epic family love story, A Band Called Death chronicles the incredible fairy-tale journey of what happened almost three decades later, when a dusty 1974 demo tape made it way out of the attic and found an audience several generations younger. Playing music impossible ahead of its time, Death is now being credited as the first black punk band (hell...the first punk band!), and are finally receiving their long overdue recognition as true rock pioneers. Written by
What happens when you mix family, faith and punk rock
In the past few years, there have been very good documentaries on great musicians who just missed success. First came "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" about the mentally ill genius of the '80's alt-rock scene. Then "The Story of Anvil" about Canada's greatest forgotten metal band. Then there was last year's Oscar-winning "Searching for Sugarman" about Rodriguez, the '60's folk-pop singer who became an icon in South Africa, but nowhere else. And now there is "A Band Called Death" about an early punk band from Detroit that by rights should have gotten the same recognition as the Stooges or MC5.
Nominally, this is a film about punk rock, but really it's about family. That's because the original line-up of Death was three brothers: Dannis Hackney--a drummer into Alice Cooper; Bobby Hackney--the bassist/lead vocalist who grew up wanting to be like Paul McCartney; and the late David Hackney, a guitarist who successfully tried to create a playing style that was a cross between Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix. Dannis and Bobby still reminisce and tell stories about the early days as only family members can. The Hackney family is very close-knit and deeply religious, as well as musical.
It was David who came up with the name of the band and wrote all their songs--many of which had spiritual themes. And it was David who kept them from success during his lifetime. After they recorded their album, they shopped it to all the major labels. Clive Davis of Arista records was ready to sign them if they only changed the name of the group. David refused, and so the band went unsigned. After that, they moved to Vermont where the police would tear down their fliers under the mistaken idea that they were gang-related propaganda. When they did finally change their name, they were still hard-pressed to get gigs because of the religious content of their lyrics. So David left and moved back to Detroit where he developed twin addictions to alcohol and cigarettes, eventually dying of lung cancer in 2000. Meanwhile, Bobby and Dannis formed the reggae band Lambsbread, where religious lyrics are more acceptable.
Fast forward to 2008: Bobby's sons--Bobby Jr, Julian and Urian become aware of these MP3's online from an early hardcore punk band called Death. Already huge punk fans, they (separately) listen to what they think is the best rock music they've ever heard. And when the vocals come in, they realize they're listening to their dad and uncles. So they learn the songs themselves, and form a Death tribute band called Rough Francis. Which inspires Bobby Sr and Dannis to re-form Death with a new guitarist.
As I said in an earlier paragraph, this movie is not so much about the band Death, but the Hackney family. Their love and loyalty towards each other radiates off the screen. One of the main interviewees is their older brother Earl who was not part of the band. They cry when they talk about David. They laugh when they remember what they were like as kids. When their mother dies during filming, we in the audience are nearly as devastated as they are. The only change I would have liked to see would have been interview footage with David. But of course, that doesn't exist, so all we're left with is the awesome music he wrote.
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