Thanks to the intersecting lines where access to information and music on the internet and the increasing ease of making a movie on a minor budget meet, there seems to now be a new subgenre of documentary that has arisen almost overnight. Between Anvil, Searching for Sugarman, Twenty Feet From Stardom, Charles Bradley: Soul of America, and several others, there has been an almost meteoric rise in the number of films about people who cut albums and spent years languishing in niche obscurity, only to have their awesomeness finally find an audience. But few of these stories are as baffling as the story A Band Called Death, which chronicles exactly what it says on the tin. It’s baffling because on a surface level and in hindsight, it’s almost impossible to know where the ball was dropped in terms of making them what might rightfully be called the first ever punk rock band.
Directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino explore the reasons why this forceful three piece outfit’s music wasn’t so much lost, as it was merely stuffed into a box full of memories, broken dreams, and grief to be forgotten about. Comprised of three brothers – Dannis, Bobby, and David Hackney on drums, bass, and guitar, respectively – from a then not as hellish Detroit, Death was active from 1973-1980. Heavily influenced by The Who and Alice Cooper instead of the Motown sound that was hip to their region, the brothers played aggressive, accomplished proto-punk jams that would drive their neighbours crazy. Although close to a record deal several times, their actual name (insisted on by David because he had an entire well thought out concept around it) kept them from any real degree of success despite having a professionally recorded album in the can. A detour in life that brought them to Burlington, Vermont of all places saw them morph into what might have been the first ever Christian Hard Rock Band, but again they were derided not for their music, but because no one wanted to listen to the message the spiritual hearted David was laying down. Dannis and Bobby would team up for a reggae band, but David – despite having a loving wife – hit the bottle, frustrated with his inability to get anywhere creatively, and he sadly smoked himself into an early grave in 2000.
It’s one hell of a story trying to explain how a band this good could have had their throne usurped by the Ramones only a few short years after they recorded. They were almost the definition of “ahead of their time” or “too unique for their own good”. Eschewing all talking heads that were not immediately a part of the band’s past, Howlett and Covino stay on point to tell an engrossing story in rock history.
Although, that really only makes up about an hour of the movie, with the final third devoted to the rediscovery of Death by modern ears. What starts off as a promising look at how the internet, by way of bloggers and rabid record collectors, can now give an obscure band their due and finally make them recognized at times spins its wheels trying to find new ways to keep praising an already great story. Also, while it’s nice to see the band reformed and the children and relatives of the guys keeping the dream alive, the drama seems to be gone. There’s a heck of a set up and story, but once it gets to the happy ending, the catharsis of seeing Death’s success is made out to be more complex and long winded than it needs to be.
But that music that’s being produced is pretty undeniable.
Producer Scott Mosier will be on hand for a Q&A following the 7:15pm screening of A Band Called Death at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, August 16th.