Written by Chris Morgan
Perhaps you have heard the rough outline of the documentary A Band Called Death, as the story of the titular band certainly got some traction in various forms of media. In the 1970s, three black teenaged brothers in Detroit form a proto-punk band who, eventually, decide to name themselves Death. Their music falls through the cracks, until it is rediscovered many years later and the band finally gets their due credit and recognition. Indeed, that is a nice, tight summary, and one that is definitely intriguing. It is certainly a unique story, and one that, if told well, could make a quite effective film. If Jello Biafra gets to spend sometime showing weird old records he bought, so much the better.
A Band Called Death doesn’t do anything new with the form of the documentary. It begins with the childhood of the three brothers in Death, David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney, and it moves linearly from there. There is old footage, plenty of music from the band, and a lot of talking head interviews with a variety of souces. Mostly, however, the movie follows the Hackney family, particularly Dannis and Bobby. However, there is a lot more to the story than the beginning of the band and their modern rise from the ashes. These men lived long, full lives, full of music and family and heartache. Their story is deep, and interesting and emotionally impactful.
Alas, there is still a lull in the story after the end of Death and before their resurgence. Obviously, it is all important for it to be covered, but it doesn’t have the same punch, the same intrigue. It starts to feel like a pretty rote documentary about some non-descript band, which is not what Death was, and is a bit of a disservice to the Hackney brothers. That being said, the beginning of the movie is quite good, and the climax of the movie, when their music is found anew through a series of fortunate events, is truly fantastic and really resonant. Even if you know some of the details of the story, it is still well worth watching play out.
It also helps that the music is very good, and truly feels inventive. If you like what the kids call punk music, then you should probably watch A Band Called Death. Even if you don’t, however, and you just want to hear the tale of the Hackney brothers, which is a story worth hearing, you will probably still enjoy it. This is a very good documentary. It is not as original in its art as Death was, but they still tell the story well, and they get all the key details in there, and make sure the events are clear and unfold in an effective fashion. It may have taken a while, but Death has gotten their due thanks to this documentary.
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