A Band Called Death Review

Death A Band Called Death is a story of rebirth. And that would probably have seemed entirely appropriate to the late David Hackney, had he lived to see it. Hackney and his two brothers, Bobby and Dannis, formed their band, Death, in the early 1970€™s. Three African-American teenagers, sons of a Baptist preacher, they played unapologetically fierce and compelling proto-punk in the soul/funk Mecca of Motown. The music they made would languish in obscurity for almost 40 years, until the world came knocking, just as David Hackney knew they would€ The film, by Marc Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett, set fire to the festival circuit last year, earning almost unanimous critical praise, and was released on DVD and Blu-ray last month. Something more than your average rockumentary, it corrects a historical and aesthetic injustice by allowing the visionary brilliance of this forgotten band of brothers to shine for all the world to see, while also packing an emotional punch as powerful as the music they produced. While there is, unsurprisingly, very little visual record of Death in their heyday, Covino and Howlett make maximum use of the aural archaeology available to them, channeling the passion and energy of the band€™s music on the soundtrack, while inventively interweaving faded photos, location visits, and talking heads, expertly balancing the excitement of their musical discovery with the emotional impact of the Hackneys€™ story. Though viewed through the narrative prism of Death€™s birth, demise and resurrection - from their noisy nativity in the guest room of their modest Detroit home, to the temptations they faced from record companies who promised the world in exchange for a few small compromises, to their disillusion and dissolution after years of commitment returned negligible success, and finally, to their rediscovery, decades after their efforts had faded into little more than fond memories - the film€™s focus remains fixed on family, highlighting the importance of the personal to the professional, underscoring that the music and the lives of the men who made it are inextricably intertwined. All at once, a historical revision and a cross-section of the creative process, the film reveals how the brothers€™ potent and prophetic music, as well as every fateful twist and turn of their history, was forged by personal experiences of love and loss, faith and fealty, determination and devotion. At the center of it all is David Hackney, a gifted guitarist and, by all accounts, Death€™s guiding light. Though dead from lung cancer long before Death began to resurface on anyone€™s radar, his belief in the band remained unshakable to the end. So much so, in fact, that shortly before his death, he handed off the band€™s original master tapes to his brother Bobby, so that they€™d be handy when people came looking. Which, with a little help from fans and family, they eventually did. Precious little footage, or even photos of David exist, but his wife, brothers, and nephews, through their interviews and reminiscences, paint a vivid portrait of an artistic visionary, defiant dreamer, and charismatic mystic whose abstractions and convictions could be as frustrating as they were inspiring. It might be hard for some people to understand and sympathize with a man who could turn down a lucrative record contract, telling music mogul Clive Davis to go to hell rather than accede to his request to simply change the band€™s name, and even David€™s brothers still wince at the memory. But to David Hackney, Death was more than just a music group; it was a unified artistic concept, expressive of a creative mission to find the positive in the negative, to see death as a prelude to new beginnings. In his words, €œIf we give them the title to our band, we might as well give them everything else,€ and a quick glance at the history of any number of groups who chose a different path certainly gives some weight to his words. Regardless, for David, Death represented a holistic, indivisible idea, one he thought worthy of the world€™s attention, no matter how long it took to get it, and he went to his grave still believing that Death would have its day. Covino€™s and Howlett€™s film simultaneously chronicles and participates in the story of his vindication. There is no question that Death, with their aggressive punk ferocity, was years ahead of their time. Their music not only presages punk pioneers like the Ramones or the Sex Pistols, but even seminal second-wave acts like Bad Brains and Fear. Even if it went largely unheard at the time, it survives, thanks to the efforts of dedicated record collectors and loyal family members, to say nothing of the unwavering commitment of David Hackney, as a sonic blueprint for a staggering amount of what followed. And thanks to Covino and Howlett, A Band Called Death stands as a document, not only of the previously unrecognized artistic contributions of the three Hackney brothers to the creation of a musical genre, but also of their intense familial devotion, creative passion, unflagging integrity, and steadfast conviction €“ qualities that have, themselves, become ideological pillars of punk rock €“ paving the way for Death to rise again and take their proper place in the pantheon of popular music.
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Matt J. Popham is an erratic, unreliable writer, an unapologetic intellectual snob, an opinionated political loudmouth, a passionate cinephile, and a near obsessive fan of Doctor Who and punk rock. I also tend to overuse commas and ellipses... If you're on Facebook and a fan of Doctor Who, go here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Doctor-Who-50th-Anniversary-Page/387058671391930 This is my blog that I almost never keep up with: http://killingthemedium.wordpress.com