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A Band Called Death

2012 | 96 min | R | 1.85:1

A Band Called Death


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Theatrical release date

 28 June, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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A Band Called Death Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, July 26, 2013

There is an irresistible sense of joy to the music documentary “A Band Called Death.” It’s mournful work in many ways, but also carries itself with an air of triumph as it winds through an extraordinary story of dormancy and frustration. Similar in scope to the 2008 triumph “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” “A Band Called Death” tracks the same emotional journey of delayed gratification, only here the players are atypical to the world of punk music, with directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett using the sheer oddity of the subjects and their strange road to a record release to fashion an exceptional look at artistic integrity, musical innovation, and the power of family ties.

The rise of The Beatles launched a million dreams of musical stardom for American teenagers during the 1960s, even infecting the Hackney household in Detroit, Michigan, where African-American brothers David (on guitar), Bobby (bass, vocals), and Dannis (drums) decided to join forces and work out a sonic direction of their own. Floundering for a few years as they rehearsed in the family home, the trio eventually found inspiration from the mystical nature of the afterlife, branding themselves Death. Forging a unique sound that would later be classified as “protopunk,” the band’s skill was undeniable, interesting several record companies, but the name prevented offers from being made, leaving the brothers without a secure foothold in the business, left with only their master tapes. Disbanding and moving on the other ventures, the Hackneys carried on separately, building lives and careers, and in the case of David, battling demons, with his death in 2000 a profound loss for Bobby and Dannis.

“A Band Called Death” covers the origin story of the Hackneys for its first half, detailing their shared loved of music in the Motor City and how they formed their sound -- funk interests sharpened after a steady diet of The Who and Alice Cooper entered their lives in the 1970s. These were three ambitious men who revered their father and were loved by their mother, attempting to scale the fortified walls of rock ‘n’ roll armed with a driving beat that wasn’t commonplace at the time. But there was that name, that dreary moniker that hung on the trio like a “do not disturb” sign, discouraging those interested in the tunes to invest in the men. The brand was David’s idea, emerging after consideration on life’s ultimate trip (not a grim label meant to intimidate), and a decision he was unwilling to compromise, leaving the brothers with a few reels of musical gold in their hands and nobody to share it with. But a funny thing happened while Death was on their way to obscurity.

While the brothers disbanded Death, failing to reconnect with more spiritual endeavors, their work together would find an appreciative audience decades later, with savant-style journalists and collectors discovering the band’s lone release (a 45 with two songs), which would go on to fetch a fine price on Ebay auctions as the world caught up to the Hackney aura. Suddenly, Death was resurrected, returned to the spotlight in 2008 when a few children of the Hackney brothers decided to form their own band, Rough Francis (an ode to one of David’s solo efforts), as a way to celebrate the family and their curious journey of recognition. It’s a tear-jerking turn of events, with interviews from Bobby and Dannis bubbling with conflicted feelings on the return of a band that was driven almost entirely by David’s passion and fixation on mystical forces, while nods of appreciation from musicians and fans lend the documentary a necessary element of respect and, frankly, surprise that three black guys from Detroit were serving up slices of punk before the musical genre was even established.

“A Band Called Death” is superbly crafted, collecting snippets of the group’s music while painting a credible portrait of their limited history, showing a deep appreciation for the sibling dynamic and their musical harmony. There’s a mournful weight to contend with due to David’s death, yet the filmmakers smartly play up the joy of discovery, watching the world join the wavelength the fallen brother was riding on nearly 40 years ago (an event he eerily predicted). The structure and visual scheme of the effort is familiar, but “A Band Called Death” has an inspiring story to share, and it does so with real gusto and pride, joining the league of insiders eager to share the Hackneys with the world.

Starring: Bobby Hackney, Sr., Dannis Hackney, David Hackney, Bobbie Duncan
Directors: Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett

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