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A Band Called Death (2012)

July 1, 2013



produced by: Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett, Jerry Ferrera, Kevin Mann & Scott Mosier

directed by: Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett

rated: not rated

runtime: 98 min. 

U.S. release date: June 28, 2013


In recent years a sort of formal structuralism has emerged on the scene of music documentaries. Find a lost, obscure or overlooked band, get a bunch of famous celebrities to give glowing testaments to their unheralded genius, and then track down said musicians (usually now working some menial job) and chart their improbable comeback to greatness and long overdue recognition.  Lately we have seen this formula used to great effect in such films as “Anvil”, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”, and “Searching for Sugarman”, and now we can add one more to the list.

“A Band Called Death” tells the interesting story of three black brothers from a lower-middle class family in Detroit who formed one of the earliest recorded punk bands in history in the mid-1970s, then faded away into obscurity.  Brothers Dannis, Bobby and David Hackney grew up as preacher’s sons, and learned to appreciate music at an early age from their father.  After David sees the Who in concert, he convinces the brothers to ditch the “rock funk” sound they were cultivating and focus exclusively on hard rock n’ roll, which in their hands, develops into a sort of proto-punk style.





In long interviews with Bobby and Dannis, they explain that David was the creative leader of the band and that they would back each other up no matter what, even when David insists they call themselves Death, inspired by a complex spiritual revelation that he had.  Being a black punk rock band in Detroit in the early 1970s was difficult enough, but having a challenging and confrontational name was more or less career suicide.  And even when a major record label eventually comes calling, the band refuses to sign a contract because the label demands a name change.

The movie then charts the slow disintegration of the band, as Bobby and Dannis move eastward to Vermont to start gospel and reggae bands, and David stays home in Detroit to struggle with his demons.  The film picks up speed however when it moves into the present day, as record collectors and music aficionados eventually discover the one 7 inch single that Death released, and Chicago label Drag City decides to reissue their entire catalog, a mere seven total songs.  Tragically, David had passed away from lung cancer, a crushing blow to the other two brothers, and the specter of David Hackney haunts the entire film.  Everything the brothers do from that moment on is dedicated to David’s memory, including their inevitable recognition as punk pioneers once the music is finally released.




It’s a touching story, almost perfectly designed for a movie, but there are some glaring oversights.  First, the typical talking-head-interviews-with-rock-legends part of the documentary is limited only to the very beginning and very end, and while it’s always cool to hear from such luminaries as Henry Rollins, Alice Cooper and Questlove, their contributions seem perfunctory and lacking in real insight.  And how a two-hour documentary about a black punk band from Detroit can be made without once mentioning the MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges or Bad Brains is simply inexcusable.  Also, there is no talk of drug use at all (though the brothers once mention David’s “problem with the bottle”) which is strange considering they appear to be stoned for much of the film and their music seems (to me) most inspired by the druggy metal of bands like Black Sabbath.

Still, directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett seem more interested in the musicians themselves than the music, and in that regard “A Band Called Death” becomes much more of a human story.  Scenes of the crumbling infrastructure of Detroit and Bobby working his night shift as a school janitor show us a country of lost souls chasing unfulfilled dreams.  This film shows us the importance of holding onto those dreams, even if they are as seemingly prosaic as making a blistering, gnarly punk rock album.












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