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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
Stuck in the shadow of Searching for Sugar Man, this tale of an all-black protopunk band from Detroit hits many of the same notes, but plays its own tune. This is a film whose appeal may be more limited than Sugar Man due to the hard and raw style of the band in question, but the music unearthed is no less vital.
Death's story is told mostly from the perspective of Bobby and Dannis Hackney, the bassist/vocalist and drummer, respectively. They recount the birth of Death and walk you through some of the places of note. We're robbed of the opportunity to hear from who we learn is the driving force behind the band, guitarist David Hackney, who sadly passed away from lung cancer in 2000. He does make appearances in the movie in the form of audio recordings and you get a sense of the unique viewpoint that gave the band its vision through these recordings and his brothers' recollections.
It's that vision that shaped Death, and ultimately, limited their potential. Being steadfast about not changing the name of the band, David felt the name went with the concept he had for the band and, as such, he was resolute. Even when record mogul Clive Davis came knocking loving the music but hating the name David chose to pass the opportunity by rather than compromise. This, in a nutshell, is the answer to the great mystery of how they were deprived their stardom. Fortunately, the film has more to offer than that.
It's watching Bobby's sons, and the effect his early music has on them that provides the film with its heart and makes it more than a just sad story about how elusive fame may be. Their drive and determination to get their father's music out by-any-means-necessary is inspiring to watch. The excitement with which they recall finding out their dad is a rock pioneer is written all over their faces. Bobby had instilled in his sons a deep appreciation of music of all kinds, just like his father had done for him, and it turned out they appreciated his music most of all.
Sounding like Love, The Who, Buzzcocks, The Saints, The Damned and The Real Kids all playing with The Stooges' gear, it's easy to see why there was so much excitement for Death's recent rediscovery. Chance plays such a big part in any musical success, it's little wonder that so many great artists fall through the cracks. One supposes that with the success of Searching for Sugar Man, these documentaries attempting to right musical wrongs might become their own subgenre. If that's the case, you can count me as an early enthusiast. These stories speak to the longevity of art and the way it sits there patiently, waiting to be discovered and the magic that happens when you do. As Henry Rollins puts it, "It's one of those things that keeps you going to the record store hoping for another great story like that."
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