A Band Called Death
Rock history is filled with tragedy: ugly band breakups, festival disasters, and deaths at 27. So when you actually get a documentary about a band called “death”, one might expect more of the same tragedy. And while there is some tragedy in this story about three religious Detroit brothers playing punk music in 1974 before punk was punk who somehow went completely unheard, the heart of the story is absolutely life-affirming: celebrating family, rock ‘n’ roll, and a firm belief that death doesn’t have the last say.
Death was a mid-70’s punk band formed by the brothers Hackney: Bobby (bass, vocals), Dannis (drums), and David (guitar). The three brothers started playing music in a spare bedroom under the name Rock Fire Funk Express, but after the sudden death of their Baptist preacher father, whom each of the brothers looked up to, they decided a change was needed. David came to the band with the idea of changing the band name to Death shortly after their father’s passing, hoping to spin “death” into a positive, look at death in a more spiritual sense, and honor their father through their music. Death played rip-roaring punk similar to fellow Motown rockers MC5, or also in the words of the mighty Questlove, “this is the Ramones but two years earlier than the Ramones.” The band finally landed a record label, but upon being asked by the record label to change their name, the band stuck to their convictions and refused to change it, thus losing the record deal.
The structure of the story follows very closely to last year’s Academy Award winning Searching for Sugar Man, sort of a story about rediscovering a visionary talent years after the fact. Like Sugar Man, the story is almost too good to be true, but in addition to the redemptive nature of the story, the depiction of the Hackney family is what really makes this movie shine. There is a wonderful tenderness shown in the three generations of Hackney’s on display that the filmmakers Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett were able to capture, and it’s what makes the story transcend just being a story about a pioneering rock band being rediscovered by a bunch of hip music journalists and collectors.
My biggest knock of A Band Called Death has to be its conventional nature, sticking to a pretty straightforward documentary style, leaving few surprises except for the story itself. That knock aside, A Band Called Death is currently on Netflix, and makes for a surprisingly inspirational 90 minute watch.
For more of our favorite rock documentaries, check out our Top Ten Music Documentaries.