Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bobby Hackney, Dannis Hackney, Henry Rollins, Kid Rock, Elijah Wood, Alice Cooper, Jello Biafra, David Hackney (archive)
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 96
Date: 07/05/2013

A Band Called Death (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Death' Lives

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Last year's Searching for Sugar Man told a great musical mystery story, one that crossed continents and took in whole political movements. The similar A Band Called Death takes place on a much smaller scale, but it's still a great musical mystery story.

Historians would tell you that punk music's origins include the Detroit bands the Stooges and the MC5, as well as New York bands The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. But things really got under way in the 1970s, with the Ramones leading the pack, and Television, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, The Clash, the Buzzcocks, etc. following.

Now there's a new piece of the puzzle. In Detroit, black musicians were expected to want to make Motown-style records, i.e. soul music. But the brothers Hackney -- David, Bobby, and Dannis -- were more interested in the rock 'n' roll they heard at an Alice Cooper show. Around 1971, they picked up guitar, bass, and drums, and began playing as fast and loud as they could. David was the group's visionary leader: he came up with the band name as well as their logo and ideals. They recorded seven songs, but were unable to sell them. Their name was too controversial, but David refused to change it. They pressed a single, "Politicians in My Eyes" / "Keep on Knocking," and waited.

Nothing happened. David grew sick and died, and the other brothers formed other bands to pay the rent. But David told his brothers to hang onto the tapes, because "people would come looking for them someday." That's where this movie comes in.

So Death becomes one of the first -- perhaps the first -- true punk band, and certainly the first all-black punk band. (The band Bad Brains didn't come around until a few years later.) Although, very obviously, none of the subsequent bands could have been influenced by them, since no one heard their music. Joey Ramone's brother is interviewed here as one of the first people who -- as soon as he heard about them -- became interested in tracking down the surviving members of the band. So they remain this missing piece, a great "what if" story, and a great discovery. The music is fast and loud, but it's also a bit dreamy and trippy at times, always fascinating.

Nowadays the surviving brothers come across as totally genuine, absolutely astonished and surprised by all this attention, and a little humbled, but there's also a sense of satisfaction; they did all the hard work, and now it's finally paying off. They deserve it. The movie also interviews some delightful family members, including a fourth brother not involved with the band, as well as some musicians (Henry Rollins, Kid Rock, Alice Cooper, Jello Biafra) and actor Elijah Wood, who also owns a record label. (For some reason, these people are always using the phrase "I was totally blown away" when describing their Death experiences.)

Overall, A Band Called Death has no regrets. It's full of hope, and looks toward the future. It seems more interested in paying tribute to David Hackney (as well as building his legend) than it does mourning any kind of loss. After all, the Death tapes are now available for everyone to hear, and they're awesome.

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