Arriving on the heels of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching For Sugar Man, A Band Called Death is another crowd-pleasing doc about an enigmatic Detroit act whose music was initially ignored, misunderstood, or dismissed, then rediscovered and embraced by later generations. Searching For Sugar Man reignited Sixto Rodriguez’s career, which hibernated during the decades between his early-1970s creative peak and his recent discovery that bootlegs had made him a massive star in South Africa. A Band Called Death looks primed to do the same for its subject, the Detroit band Death, which had the immediate curse and eventual blessing of being ahead of its time. Inspired by Pete Townshend’s windmilling intensity, Alice Cooper’s gothic theatricality, and the shrieking pandemonium The Beatles inspired, visionary songwriter and guitarist David Hackney pushed his brothers Bobby and Dannis to perform loud, fast, politically engaged anthemic rock that presaged punk’s raucous passion and rebellion.
Black men from Detroit playing angry, confrontational rock would be a hard sell even today, but it was unheard of in the early-to-mid-1970s. The group’s name proved an even greater impediment to success. In a story central to Death’s mythology, tastemaker Clive Davis offered to make the band members into stars if they’d pick a more commercial name. Within the context of punk ethics, this was a Faustian bargain: Davis was offering to fulfill the band’s dreams and spread its message around the world, but at the cost of something central to its identity. More pragmatic musicians might have rationalized the name change as an acceptable, superficial price for becoming viable in a hostile market, but Death would never have roared into existence if David Hackney had been more practical or flexible. Hackney set out to play chords like Townshend and leads like Jimi Hendrix; he wasn’t about to curtail his ambition to accommodate lesser minds.
Hackney had a mystical, spiritual vision for Death that his brothers supported even at the cost of commercial suicide. After Death’s demise, the brothers channeled their spiritual convictions into a new group called The 4th Movement, but Hackney never got over the failure of his audacious vision for Death. He became an alcoholic and died in 2000 of lung cancer, at which point his brothers were performing in a roots reggae group called Lambsbread.
There isn’t much footage of Hackney in A Band Called Death. Since Death was a commercial nonentity during its heyday, the filmmakers didn’t have music videos, live footage, TV appearances, or even a studio album to draw on. Yet the late cult musician dominates the film all the same. His magnetic, larger-than-life personality comes alive in the anecdotes shared by his brothers, nephews, bandmates, and everyone else who loved him and mourned him and his band.
Like Searching For Sugar Man, A Band Called Death is bifurcated: The first half is devoted to its subject’s failure to attract contemporary audiences, while the second half is devoted to later generations discovering and resurrecting the music. Over time, Death’s tragedy evolves into triumph. Death’s one rare, extremely valuable single is rediscovered, and its abandoned demos are assembled into a critically acclaimed 2009 album, For The Whole World To See, released on Drag City.
A Band Called Death excels as a familial love story that echoes through the generations, as Death’s music is discovered by Bobby and Dannis’ sons, who grew up in households rich with music and togetherness, but had no idea of their family’s secret legacy as overlooked punk-rock pioneers. They knew their family was special, but they had no idea just how special or different it really was, or how deep its musical roots went.
With the reformed Death, the surviving Hackney brothers now perform angry, defiant music from what appears to be a place of peace and acceptance. They have ample reason to be bitter toward the music industry and the world. Instead, they exude humility and gratitude over being given a second opportunity to fulfill their brother’s dream. The Hackneys have seemingly made it through a long wilderness to a place of grace. Consequently, A Band Called Death doubles as a powerful testament to the spiritual power of music and its capacity for transcending race, class, and even the bounds of death. It’s a soul-stirring tribute to a man whose vision was too bold and revolutionary for his lifetime, or the convention-bound ways of the music industry, but was ultimately too powerful to be denied.