Death comes for us all.
You know, I always associate Detroit with the soulful sounds of Motown and funk music. I mean bands like The Temptation, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and even the Contours basically defined the music scene there. I fully get that this is a narrow view of the rich diversity of the Detroit music scene, but when I think of a group of African-American musicians coming together to create music, I and the subjects of the rockumentary A Band Called Death will tell you, the expectation is that it would be Motown-esque. Thanks to the efforts of directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, we get to uncover a band whose time has finally come. Some 30 years ago, a group of African-American brothers would form a band that would change the music scene of their time by being, what some would contend, the first punk band ever. That is, they would have been if it weren’t for the name and their unconventional playing style.
A Band Called Death is the rediscovery of an all-black, punk band from Detroit made up of three brothers, David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney, the sons of a pastor and a mother who encouraged her children to absorb all types of music. This nurturing led the brothers to get involved in rock music of The Who and Hendrix, molding them in a unit of pure, aggressive, emotional cadence that is felt in their music. The band called themselves Death after the death of their father and based upon the way the clouds look at the funeral to brother David, who is the defacto leader of the band and the driving force behind keeping the band name even though unforeseen circumstances would derive from the aggressive band name. The name and hardships that follow are nothing short of tragic, with the retelling of the bands history from brothers Bobby and Dannis. Why David isn’t involved is another tragic tale that all combine into one of the most heartbreaking and emotional turning points of the documentary.
The documentary has some obstacles to overcome early on. One in which is how do you tell a story about a band that no one is familiar with? How much time do you spend on their backstory and history, hoping that an audience will be kept on the line long enough to care about what happens in the end? It’s a difficult decision because there has to be a hook or some sort of payoff for the audience instead of watching a documentary on a band that was just shy of greatness. The directors decide to bet the farm so to speak and give you the beginning of their journey, from the roots of the musical inclinations to the tragic despair that befell them as the band Death. We watch them first form, their first song recording, their struggles with rejection due to their name, the moving and splitting of the band and the final moments of them forgetting about the small punk band they formed in Detroit. It all comes together, the emotional roller coaster that their journey from Death, to their side projects and loss of their leader, it hits you like no other when the story slides from tragic, missed success to a new found acclaim. All this rediscovery is due to one of their LP’s being discovered at a record shop and it was immediately shared among the music scene.
It’s a story that is about as fairytale as it can come. What looked to be a “Behind The Music” documentary becomes this emotional, uplifting story of success decades after their hardships stymied their potential history changing music. Bobby and Dannis were left with a prophetic message from their leader David, months before he died about how their music, how Death was going to find their success long after their time. The forming of their band and name was given to them from the Heavens above, so it is only fitting that the message of finding fame after Death seems almost ordained. David could be argued as both the visionary and problem of the group, never wavering from his staunch position on the band’s name and direction. Bobby and Dannis both recount stories and incidences where they just split and fell apart, sometimes regretting what became of Death, but ultimately fulfilling what David told them would happen in the end.
I can’t even express how incredibly touching and emotional this story is to experience. What looks to be a story about failure and what could have been, turns in a third act that brings tears to your eyes when you witness the remaining brothers coming together and playing as Death for the first time after being rediscovered. I got choked up hearing about the first rehearsal of Death when the new guitarist played the opening chords that David was supposed to play, the look on Bobby and Dannis’ faces were a mix of sadness, joy, astonishment and something personal to them. To see the last act of the documentary will make you appreciate their journey even more.
A Band Called Death almost rewrites the punk rock history book. Unearthing a story that is too good to be true, but also one of the single most moving stories out there, Death has finally come. All the early hardships, fights, failures and struggles build us up to something monumental. I am not saying that this is the be all end all of music acts out there. I am sure that there are hundreds of unheard demos from bands that could have had the opportunities, but A Band Called Death is more about the “what could have been” in the early beginnings for the Hackney brothers and how through it all, their sound would come to find a crowd after all. They are now touring again, playing their songs for a new generation to discover and enjoy and best of all, they finally released their full LP Death For the Whole World To See.
Anchored by the wonderful storytelling of Dannis and Bobby, they openly talk about the band, the history and their lives with a bit a humor and emotional weight. They lay the foundation of who they are out there for the audience and you connect with the story and their journey more than you will ever know. You feel the highs and lows of the brothers, but the bittersweet ending is all that you need to leave the theater with a smile on your faces, redness in your eyes from the tears and newfound respect admiration for what it means to stick to your convictions through thick and thin.
It’s time to embrace Death.
Rating: 5 LP’s out of 5
By Nick Guzman