NR, 96 min.
Directors: Jeff Howlett, Mark Christopher Covino
Featuring: Dannis Hackney, Bobby Hackney Sr., David Hackney, Brian Spears, Mick Collins, Henry Rollins, Kid Rock, Elijah Wood, Wayne Kramer, Tammy Hackney, Don Davis, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, Heidi Simpson, Vernon Reid
Long time readers of A Penny in the Well know that I love music almost as much as movies. I offer a Best of the Year list for music each year. Last year my two loves merged when “Searching for Sugar Man” became an Oscar contender for Best Documentary. The film depicted the rediscovery of a musician phenomenon named Rodriguez, whom I had discovered only a few years before the movie. This year it’s happened again with “A Band Called Death”.
I first became aware of Death only about a year ago, as their album “Death… For the Whole World To See” became an underground phenomenon. A friend of mine posted a link on his Facebook page to a free demo of the band’s most well known track “Politicians in My Eyes”, and I was hooked. Only a few weeks after that, I learned about this documentary to be released by Drafthouse Films, which is now streaming on Netflix.
Death’s story isn’t quite as unique as Rodriguez’s, but it’s still fairly amazing. Growing up in Detroit, the Hackney brothers’ upbringing didn’t necessarily suggest that they would form the first ever black punk band, but they were drawn more toward the music of rock than Motown. They tried funk at first but David Hackney, the artistic center of the group, was drawn to something more original for a black family band. Soon, they were angering their family members and neighbors by practicing their “white boy” music from 3 to 6 every day. After the death of their father, David was inspired to put a positive twist on the afterlife and named their band Death.
We are guided through the band’s unlikely career by the two remaining brothers Dannis and Bobby, who give pretty much all of the credit for the band and their late career success to David, who passed away in 2000. It isn’t surprising to learn that what kept them from success at the time of the band’s existence was its name, which David refused to change, even after a lucrative contract was offered to them by Artisan Record’s founder Clive Davis on the contingency that they change it.
The documentary isn’t as inspired as “Searching for Sugar Man”, but the story is just as interesting. It so nice to see how the very positive values of these men are passed on to the next generation in Bobby’s children. As young adults, his offspring only became aware of the father’s and uncles’ musical innovation through the underground resurgence of the “Politicians in My Eyes” single. His children were instrumental in ensuring that the world was able to hear all of Death’s music by pushing their father and uncle to produce their original studio master tapes and mount a concert tour. Their music is something special, and it’s a blessing that the world can now discover them through their original recordings and this very personal documentary.