In the spirit of Anvil: The Story of Anvil and the award winning Searching for Sugarman comes A Band Called Death, a music documentary that’s as much a story of family and perseverance as it is about a band (yes, one in fact called Death). This story of one of the first metal bands ever is pretty captivating stuff. The fact that the group is all black (and initially was a trio of siblings) and comes from the heart of Motown only makes it more interesting. The story is one that you might not even believe is true, that’s how cinematic the tale is. Even if the music isn’t your thing (and honestly it’s not really mine), you find yourself getting into it pretty quickly. Directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett manage to both inform you about this band and also wind up tugging at your heartstrings before all is said and done. It’s hard to resist saying exactly what happens in this doc, but suffice to say, it’s a journey worth taking with these folks. Musicians like Alice Cooper and Henry Rollins are on hand to tell you just why the three brothers who formed Death are so essential to musical history, and I completely agree with them.
This is the story of Bobby Hackney, Dannis Hackney, and David Hackney, the founding members of a band called Death. They were a punk band before that type of music even existed. Yes, they predate The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, for example. As teenagers in the early 1970’s, the Hackney brothers started the band in a bedroom, moved out eventually into small local gigs, and even got to the point of having a single pressed, all in the hopes of someone taking a chance on them. The thing is, this was during the Motown and disco scene, so no record company was interested in them, especially with a name like Death. They never got a real shot and wound up disbanding before they got the chance to make an album. Nothing happened for three decades, until that is a demo tape went from an attic into the hearts of an audience ready for their tunes. This change ultimately led to Death getting its proper credit as a pioneering punk band (not to mention one of the only black punk bands…and obviously the first one). Throughout it all, you really get a sense of family bonds, something that forms the true core of this captivating and unlikely story.
As I mentioned above, if the music isn’t your thing, fear not…just like other music or rock documentaries manage to hold your interest without being your musical cup of tea, this one does the same. For example, I’m more of a Bruce Springsteen type of guy, but the story hooked me and I appreciated the tunes here for what they were and what they mean to rock and roll in general. You want to see the Hackney’s succeed, so you develop a stake in their songs. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if many of you wind up seeking out their album after giving this doc a shot. Death is a band that draws you in with its story.
Documentarians Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett don’t try and reinvent the cinematic wheel here, but they have an ace up their sleeve. The Hackney brothers are almost like characters out of a movie, which is part of what makes them so compelling. The film gives them time to come across as more than musicians, something not every doc of this nature can accurately do. There’s plenty of emotion to be found, but it’s never overdone and not once did I feel like Covino and Howlett were trying to falsely try and make you cry. I didn’t weep, but I know some folks have while the final third of the movie runs its course. Emotion is always the mark of a good documentary, and this is very much a good one.
Overall, it’s honestly hard to explain what really makes this such a completely successful documentary, but A Band Called Death proves to be a great tale of musical history as well as a classic underdog story as well. It’s far too early to tell if this doc will have any shot at a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the Academy Awards, but it’s certainly good enough to be in contention. As it stands now, this is one of the best docs of the first half of the year, and if Oscar doesn’t at least give it a chance, that’ll be a snub in my book. Ironically though, it’ll sort of fit in with Death’s history so far. Music doc fans will find this more powerful a film than expected, though just about everyone can enjoy it. This is one documentary that’s very easy to recommend…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!