SIFF 2013 Face The Music Preview: A Band Called Death

A Band Called Death
Directed by Jeff Howlett
(USA, 2012, 98 minutes)

Festival screenings:
Saturday, May 18, 3:00 PM at SIFF Cinema Uptown
Tuesday, May 28, 9:00 PM at SIFF Cinema Uptown

If you’re craving a newly-rediscovered musical artist story as rocking, surprising, exciting, and heart-pouncing as last year’s Searching for Sugar Man, this SIFF you have the documentary A Band Called Death. Just like the who-the-hell-knows-what’s-going-to-happen-next saga of Rodriguez, the tale of this mid-70s Detroit punk band forged between three dapper rock-funk riffing black brothers in their bedroom delivers thrills and a crazed need to go buy the crucial reissue it’s about.

That album, …For The Whole World To See, was brought back into the world a few years ago by trippy-obscure-influential music experts-label Drag City after some tapes were found languishing in the Hackney Family’s house’s attic. David, Bobby, and Dannis were the Rock Fire Funk Express till a conversion of band-leader David Hackney seeing The Who play live sent him on a visionary mission to make sense of their father’s sacrificial death and take their sound out of the realm of mixed genre into a fibrous, more spine-plucking sound. (Alice Cooper also helped kick his ass in this direction.) His brothers got caught up in the excitement, even though they were sort of inventing the whole thing on their own. (However, this is the Motor City, where the plague-perfumed fumes of RAWK filled the lungs and brains of young people for decades.) Fast forward to the late ’00s, in a tangled mass of a rare 45-collecting hive-mind melee, a beserkly-completist underground punk hunter noticed the raging, quirky, brittle punk blast of seven inch single “Politicians In My Eyes” for sale on eBay for $800. The accelerated extension of The Stooges’ stew and the out-right daddy anthem to the Bad Brains’ spew, soon magus Henry Owings posted it on his can’t-miss Chunklet’s website.

The final third of the movie A Band Called Death could be its beginning, with excited and cherubic young punk rocker Bobby Hackney, Jr. freaking out over the phone when he is finding out that his dad and uncles made some of the best punk music from nearly four decades before. He immediately started calling his family and friends to shout out about the discovery, his mind blown that a world he already lived in and loved had been at one time partly directly created by his forebears, full of energy and ideas that predated but informed his heroes like The Ramones. Sure, he knew that his dad and Dannis had a long-running feisty reggae band, and uncle David too had made some music in the 80s, one single from the latter under the moniker Rough Francis. But until rumor of that OG master tape existing came to light via punk fans and verified by scene-shapers like Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, and Joey Ramones’ brother Mickey Leigh, the truly miraculous forgotten music of Death may have been lost forever. Now Bobby (Sr.) and Dannis, with the guitarist from Lambsbread (who’s boned up on the primal bash), Death has reformed, following up their February 2013 single “Relief” with a full-length amount of new material. And brilliantly, the doc A Band Called Death features both the original Death and Rough Francis playing out Death songs to joyful, fist-pumping audiences. This third act alone makes it my favorite movie of SIFF 2013.

But why did Death die in the first place? Why was that debut seven-track album never released in its own time? The Hackney’s father (Bobby Jr.’s grandfather) died trying to save a co-worker who was hurt in an electrical mishap, which inspired guitarist David to let his existential doubts flow into a rage for living and creating, and coming up with some strange but wonderful ideas about this life being “a waiting room” to what lies beyond. David becomes a sort of punk rock Kierkegaard, using Death as a challenging voice ferociously reminding the world it needs to set its mind on higher things, as his hero Pete Townshend always did on albums like Quadrophrenia. But for seven years, music business moguls like Clive Davis would flirt with the band, promising to make them stars on one condition: They change their group name. David saw this as his cause, to not give up on promoting his idea behind Death. People needed to accept it; he wouldn’t relent, and as with all things his loving brothers backed him up in public. But like most people who are going to see the movie, Bobby and Dannis at the time privately resented the tenacity of sticking to such guns. So much might have changed if David could have just accepted the inability of people to get around the intense imagery of a band name like Death. Yeah, I was silently screaming at the screen — but genius sinks its tendrils deep into will.

Seven years on, the three brothers become a misunderstood Christian psyche band called The 4th Movement and released one album that like many great religious rock LPs pissed off the rock scene and was perhaps considered too vulgar and marginal for the faithful. The family never lost faith in God, and David got happily married, but something inside had broken and alcohol addiction hastened a defeated will; then cancer happened. But not before David made a claim that at some point, after he was gone, the music he deliriously crafted with his brothers would go on to inspire many and find the ears it needed to hear it. The brothers and sons considered this prophecy, as that is exactly what happened. This movie tells the details of this story wonderfully, and makes you excited about the very next chapter of a band called Death and their followers.

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