4.5 / 5 stars
If you judged a movie only by its title, you’d think A Band Called Death could either repulse or attract you, depending on your tastes and assumptions. But just like the musical trio of its title, this film is probably not what you think. A Band Called Death is a documentary about one family, told in two stories. The first, which takes place in 1970s Detroit, is improbable. The second, which brings us up to date on the film’s subjects, is remarkable. And the total package is simply joyous, a lovingly told celebration of big dreams and second chances.
First-time feature directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett start the journey somewhere in the middle, with notable stars like Kid Rock and Questlove telling us the story of the infamous Hackney brothers. It goes like this: In the mid-70s, three black siblings growing up in Detroit decide to play some rock-n-roll music instead of Motown, and crank out a record that becomes nothing short of legendary over the years. Adding to the mythology? The band’s frightening name: Death.
Did they play death metal? Nah. They loved The Who and Hendrix. But they weren’t just playing hard rock—they were actually, unintentionally, creating a precursor to punk rock.
Using an obvious dearth of actual photographs and recordings, Covino and Howlett make a valiant attempt to bring us back to the band’s musical birth, using editing effects and a tight soundtrack to recreate a time when three angry guys were making political commentary and enough noise to nearly blow the roof off their mom’s house. The scenes, graced by the time that’s passed, are filled with both introspection and longing. The footage, beautifully intercut with modern-day interviews, does a fine job portraying the brothers’ young intensity and naivete.
At the center of it all is David, the family’s prankster, the band’s spiritual leader and virtuoso guitarist, and the sibling who goes through an emotional transformation following the untimely death of the boys’ dad. Thus, the band’s name and “concept,” along with a vicious refusal to give in to any level of authority.
Covino and Howlett present the idea of family ties a little too neatly in the film’s intro, and it’s not necessary—their wonderful interview subjects do it naturally. Brothers Bobby and Dannis Hackney are so open with their opinions and emotions on camera, it’s impossible not to realize how passionately devoted the members of the Hackney family are to one another. The ideal of trust, of having your brother’s back, is the most pervasive concept in the film. And through sad tears and happy moments, it’s quite lovely.
Now what about that second story? It’s a doozy, similar to what we’ve seen in a film like Searching for Sugar Man (another Detroit tale), where odd, seemingly impossible connections result in fresh, unexpected new life. To say that Death could be resurrected is too tacky. (But this film is so unabashedly emotional, I said it anyway.)
The filmmakers do spend a few spare minutes highlighting the Motor City’s heyday and gradual demise, but they keep what must be an obvious storytelling impulse in check. (Side note: This is the fourth recent documentary to show a tracking shot of modern-day Detroit neighborhoods, with Sugar Man, Detropia and Burn.) While Detroit may provide a backdrop—as does Burlington, Vermont, as well—the real texture of A Band Called Death comes from its people. Brothers, uncles, cousins, and wives, willing to share with an anonymous audience what love and family mean to them. What an uplifting surprise that a movie called A Band Called Death is so full of life.