Now streaming online and playing select theaters nationally, the engaging music documentary "A Band Called Death" is the story of a comeback and a band ahead of its time.
In 1970s Detroit, three brothers — David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney — formed a hard-driving, crazily talented protopunk band cursed with the least commercial name in the history of bands: Death. Recorded in 1974 and released by a Detroit label in 1976, the band's limited-edition single featured "Politicians in My Eyes" and "Keep on Knockin.'" Sons of a Baptist minister, the African-American Hackney brothers favored what brother Earl (not in the group) laughingly refers to, on camera, as "white boy music!"
Death's speedy, driven garage sound predated The Ramones by a couple of years. Few heard, or got, Death's sound and fury. The brothers regrouped as The 4th Movement, going in a more overtly Christian direction. Later Bobby and Dannis, both of whom have lived and raised families in Vermont for years now, formed a reggae band, Lambsbread. David, Death's hard-living, stubbornly idealistic leader, died in 2000.
Stories like this typically end as a slow fade, or a fast, abrupt cut to black. But in 2008 the old Death 45s began circulating on eBay and in underground clubs. The sons and nephews of the original Death trio formed a group called Rough Francis and paid tribute to the family band they barely knew existed. The '74 demo tapes have now been released as an album on indie label Drag City, called "For the Whole World to See."
Like the recent "Searching for Sugar Man," "A Band Called Death" celebrates music born in Detroit that, with a turn of the wrist and a different roll of the dice, might've found the audience it deserved the first time. Directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett let the surviving Hackneys tell their stories in leisurely, disarming fashion. The family ties remain strong. The film is nothing much cinematically, and some of the narrative details and circumstances seemed fudged. But it's a great story, told with a fan's honest appreciation.
If record impresario Clive Davis had persuaded Death, once upon a time, to change its name, what would've happened? Success? Failure? Something in between? We'll never know. A mystery, right up there with the question of why The Replacements' "Kiss Me on the Bus" wasn't one of the big radio hits of the 1980s. The music industry is full of such questions. There are so many bands we never knew we needed to hear. And now and then, a band such as Death (now regrouped with the surviving members plus one) enjoys a second act.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1:36