The Pitch: Seminal punk band’s legacy is dusted off.
Saturday night there was a home crowd showing of this wonderful documentary at the Detroit Film Theater. In another room a birthday party for one of the donors was in full swing but I suspect we got the better deal.
A Band Called Death does what it says on the tin, namely tells the story of three African-American brothers in 70s Detroit, who formed a proto-punk band called Death. Despite recording a blistering demo and showing undoubted talent in both song-writing and tight performances during sets, a record deal did not materialise, partly because of the move away from expected genres during the Motown era and partly because the creative brains, David Hackney, did not want to change the band’s name to something more…optimistic. The band half-heartedly changed musical direction before splitting altogether in the early 80s, leaving David a broken man who eventually succumbed to alcoholism and a tragically early death.
Their demos languished in the obscurity of a recording studio and the attic of the brothers’ childhood home. They also did not appear to have played many (or any?) live shows which would normally have built up a fan base so nobody was aware of Death for almost 40 years. The surviving brothers moved to Vermont, carving out careers as reggae musicians before raising families and getting nine to five jobs. But David had never lost faith in the recordings, urging the family to keep hold of them because one day, someone would surely come looking for them.
Then about four years ago, one of the demos turned up on an LA DJ’s set-list and was hunted down by bassist Bobby’s son, who never even knew his dad had once been part of a punk band. Suddenly Death singles were collectible records, with one Chicago collector parting with $800 on Ebay for a humble disk. As drummer Dannis Hackney pragmatically concedes, ‘If he would have asked me, I’d have just given one to him!’
Bobby’s three sons and their friends grouped together to form a tribute band as Death became cult punk heroes. And Bobby and Dannis were persuaded out of retirement to reform Death, even starting to record new material with a new guitarist.
As with the similar Searching For Sugar Man, the joy of this film is in seeing how true talent never really dies. The Hackney brothers’ recent performances are as tight and nuanced as their youthful demos. The brothers immediately emmerge as likable underdogs (perfect punk icons if you will) and Bobby’s sons are a credit to their family’s legacy. David Hackney’s dreamer presence haunts the film and is dealt with respectfully by all the participants.
The documentary does run ten minutes too long, and this time could have been used to play some of the Death tracks in their entirety (which time and again, is what audiences say they enjoyed about Searching for Sugar Man).The film also suffers from two moods; the joyful and downright funny first half as the band recount making their music, and the more sombre reunion and return to Detroit. This could be balanced more effectively but does not detract from what is an enjoyable 98 minutes.
A Band Called Death is currently available on Netflix and I’d recommend seeking it out if you can. Our home audience greeted the credits with warm applause and some yelps (we are in the rock city after all). And this left me wondering how many other tales of thwarted musical genius are being played out on the streets of Detroit?