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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
"If you give them the title to our band, then you might as well give them everything else..."
Write this one up as fiction and no one would buy it. Three black brothers in Detroit back in the early seventies. Their parents come into a chunk of money and buy their music-loving kids the classic bass/guitar/drums rock configuration. David, the band's guitarist and de facto leader, decides that if he can play chords like Pete Townsend and solo like Jimi Hendrix, he'll be capable of making an all-powerful sound. And as with so much of what David proclaimed, he was right.
This movie feels like a pure rock and roll myth, and like all myths, it has its tragic act. The band called Death independently records an amazing album, but they never get the major push they were hoping for. Their extreme (at the time) name is a constant stumbling block. After a long string of rejections, Death hears word that Clive Davis might sign them - but only if they're willing to change their name. Brothers Bobby and Dannis are willing to make the change in a heartbeat, but David - an uncompromising visionary on every level - dismisses the idea without even a moment's consideration, seemingly dooming the band to permanent obscurity.
Eventually the other Hackney brothers move on without David, evolving their sound into a reggae act. In 2000, David ominously delivers their earlier recordings to his brother, telling him to keep them safe because "the world's going to come looking for the Death master tapes someday." He wasn't wrong on that one, either, or this movie wouldn't exist.
As a documentary, "A Band Called Death" is extremely well made. The Hackney brothers provide lively interviews, as do other family members and people connected with the band. Black and white photos from their well-documented studio sessions fill in the visual pieces that home video would handle in a more modern story. The film is paced well, and even though by its very existence you'll realize that the band and its music were ultimately vindicated, there are many nice surprises along the way. If you're into music (especially hard rock, punk, hardcore, or thrash) and immersive documentaries like "The King of Kong" and "Capturing the Friedmans", you'll need to check this one out as soon as you have the chance.
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