It’s weird what manages to slip through the cracks. In last year’s Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, the music of Sixto Rodriguez was ignored in its time, but he’d somehow garnered a major following in South Africa. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was a critical and commercial flop that ruined his writing career, but he experienced a resurgence thanks to literary critics in the 1920s. Vincent Van Gogh’s acclaim was wholly posthumous, and Buster Keaton might have been forgotten (The General was a critical and box office bomb) if it weren’t for his own stone-faced persistence.
What links these stories of ignored or misunderstood artists is a sense that the world wasn’t ready for them. Maybe they were ahead of their time, or maybe the rest of the culture hadn’t caught up to the present.
The Detroit protopunk band Death fits the mold. Three black brothers (Bobby, Dannis, and David Hackney) made music in their attic that would have been influential if they could just get signed, but they were unable to find a foothold in the early 1970s. Death didn’t even start to receive recognition until 2009.
A Band Called Death is their story, and it f**king rocks.
A Band Called Death
Directors: Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino
Release Date: June 28, 2013 (limited/VOD; for a full list of theaters and dates, click here)
Hearing Death’s music for the first time is startling. In our interview with directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino, they recounted their first listens. Howlett: “This stuff is amazing!” Covino: “I fell out of my seat.” Even if it was just garage rock and early punk, even if it was just three young guys in their attic, there’s a moxie to Death’s music, a pure self-assuredness. The music is thoughtful, the musicianship is compelling, but most importantly, the songs just hook into you immediately. It’s the old David Byrne line about music being physical before it’s interpreted intellectually, and Death gets right at the gut.
Give the album For the Whole World to See a listen. There’s defiant exuberance in “Keep On Knocking”; a confident jaggedness to “You’re a Prisoner,” “Where Do We Go From Here,” and “Freakin’ Out”; “Let the World Turn” marries its pair of 100 mile-per-hour choruses to Who-like psychedelia and a little bit of prog rock without sounding mannered. The riff, the lead, and the drum assault on “Rock n Roll Victim” is so damn mean, and yet that bright handclap pattern feels perfect. Check out that trilling intro to “Politicians In My Eyes.” The song is all simmering disgust through the verse — the instruments offering up their own bits of punctuation, the rat-tat-tat vocal constantly sneering — until the punchiness comes back in seven sudden spikes, like the entire band is spitting out each syllable in the title of the song.
Call it protopunk, call it punk before punk, call it rock and roll. You can label Death however you want. Whatever it is, it’s golden, and all that music was just stashed in the attic for decades because no one seemed to want it. It’s almost like those news stories about people who find rare collectibles they never knew they had, but there’s a difference with Death. David Hackney knew that what they had was great and worth saving for later. In more ways than one, without David, there would be no Death.
While labels and radio stations of the 1970s didn’t believe in them, Death was a band that believed in what they were doing and had fun doing it. With A Band Called Death, Howlett and Covino didn’t just make a rockumentary. Death’s story is an unexpectedly layered one. Sure, on the surface it’s about music fandom rediscovering lost treasure, and its about late recognition of brilliance. What really comes out in this documentary is a portrait of a tight-knit family, and it’s that closeness that was just as important as the songwriting chops.
The documentary is broken up into three parts. The first third of the film follows the band in its early days and its attempts to get noticed, the second third is about life after Death disbanded, and the last third is about the band’s rediscovery and revival. We see Bobby and Dannis out in Detroit checking out their old stomping grounds and telling stories about the neighbors calling the cops on them for being so loud. We also get to meet their older brother Earl, whose laugh is one of the most pure expressions of joy I’ve ever seen or heard.
Music collectors and the internet helped bring Death back to the public. A Band Called Death offers a kind of love letter and thank you note to music obsessives and collectors of rare singles in some ways. The film also includes interviews with Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Questlove, Alice Cooper, and others as a testament to the band’s story. (Sadly, an interview with Wayne Kramer of the MC5 was left on the cutting room floor.) Without this newfound interest, Death wouldn’t have started playing again. Howlett and Covino said their sound recording sucked when they shot the reformed Death’s first show in 2009, but the sound doesn’t matter as much as they emotion they captured.
Lots of credit also goes to Bobby Hackney’s sons, Bobby Jr., Urian, and Julian. The three young men are the backbone of the band Rough Francis, which first played the Death material in 2009 after the band’s music resurfaced on the internet. None of them realized that their dad or their uncles had this music in their past. That Rough Francis performance is caught on film as well, and it’s another sequence of palpable emotion. In the same way that fandom keeps finding old treasures, in an ideal world it’s the sons who keep the father’s music alive.
While all of this makes for a compelling story already, the heart of the movie is in that second third, which provides special focus on the late David Hackney. It was David who came up with the sound of Death, the name Death, and even Death’s logo — a perfect triangle denoted by three dots, with a fourth dot off to the side like some presence just beyond. That fourth dot was a spiritual and religious statement since so much of what kept the Hackneys going throughout their lives — and not just musically — was their faith. In retrospect, that fourth dot could also be Rough Francis, fandom, and the internet, which all had a hand in keeping Death alive.
Bobby and Dannis continued with their music careers after Death broke up in 1977, but David got stuck in an unfortunate rut in his personal life. In some ways, David is painted as a misunderstood genius, and everyone speaks of him fondly, no matter how troubled his life became. Our last glimpse of David before his death is both haunting and heartbreaking, and yet the ways that Bobby and Dannis continued to create are inspiring. A Band Called Death is one of those documentary portraits that feels both emotionally and narratively whole.
When Death tours today, they often hang a banner of David on stage with them. It’s another one of those moments that’s so oddly perfect — David’s a presence but still part of the band, another fourth dot that completes the triangle. These kinds of music stories are great because they seem so impossible and yet are the real deal. They’re built not on narcissism and ego like the worst aspect of the music business but on love and togetherness. Those are two of the best things about the Hackney family.
The third, of course, is all of that kick ass music.
[Note to NY and LA readers: The band Death will be at Cinefamily in LA and will play a live set after the 8:00pm screening on 6/28 and the 7:00pm screening on 6/29. Death will also be at Cinema Village in NY for a Q & A after the 7:30pm screening on 6/30. Death will play a show at Le Poisson Rouge on 7/1.]