A Band Called Death

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Most of us have heard a friend speak about a favorite, obscure band or artist, lamenting “they were just ahead of their time.” In today’s climate where music files can be easily shared, it’s harder for talented artists to go unnoticed. Even if monetization is a challenge, the music can now be heard by people around the world moments after the recording is finished. In the mid-’70s, it wasn’t so easy.

The Hackney brothers (Bobby, Dannis and David) were preacher’s sons growing up in Detroit at a time when Motown ruled the airwaves. They started out playing funk music, but after being exposed to The Who and Alice Cooper in concert, they modified their focus to playing full-on rock and roll. As three young African-Americans, their family and neighbors often covered their ears and didn’t really know what to think of their incredibly loud practice sessions.

A Band Called Death lovingly follows Bobby and Dannis, the surviving brothers of this cutting-edge trio, as they retrace the steps of their music history. When filming on the documentary began, their mother still was living in the home where the brothers grew up. This allows the viewer to walk right into the bedroom where their mother allowed her sons to practice every day (only from 3-6 pm) and compare it with photographs from when it was filled to the brim with amps and instruments.

The documentary also takes us into the legendary United Sound Studio, where the brothers recorded what was supposed to be their debut album. By this time, David had insisted that the band (formerly known as Rock Fire Funk Express) change their name to Death. It was something that he felt very strongly about, though it became a stumbling block for success—after the demos were recorded, all the major labels and publishing companies passed on the band, mostly because they couldn’t get past the name. Even Clive Davis, then president of Columbia Records, was courting them, but only if they dropped the name.

At that point, the band got control of their master tapes back and pressed up 500 copies of a 7” single themselves. With no label or promotion behind them, the band languished in obscurity, eventually moving out of Detroit. While Bobby and Dannis eventually formed a reggae band that afforded them enough success to stay afloat, David went back to Detroit and slipped into heavy alcoholism. When David knew that he was about to die from lung cancer, he passed the original master tapes from Death back to his brothers, telling them that he knew the world was going to come looking for them one day.

If there’s one potential blind spot in the film, it’s that even as the viewer is told over and over that this band was making punk music before The Ramones, there’s never any mention of Iggy and the Stooges, who were also in Michigan shaking up the rock establishment at the same time. Maybe the two bands never crossed paths, but the Stooges did sign to a major label and had to have been at least partially responsible for Columbia’s early interest in Death. Nonetheless, the film never explores the connection.

Early screenings of A Band Called Death have found people comparing it to last year’s documentary hit, Searching for Sugar Man. The musical stories are quite different, but they both have an inspirational arc. The biggest difference, of course, is that Rodriguez saw his music get released when he recorded it—it just didn’t find an audience in America. Death could only manage to get one single released, and the majority of their musical legacy never went beyond the walls of a recording studio.

Up to this point, the film mostly plays like a really solid episode of Behind the Music, if VH1 somehow focused on bands no one had heard of. The final act brings us up to present day and follows the rediscovery of the band, leading up to the first official release of their debut album, 33 years after it was recorded.

More than just being a standard music documentary, A Band Called Death explores the relationships between a tight-knit family, interconnected through their passions and through their loyalty to one another. Bobby and Dannis display the kind of sincerity that can only come from true selflessness. It’s not for the cameras; it’s how they live their lives and have raised their own families. Even if you didn’t know a thing about the band and you don’t even typically listen to the kind of music they play, you’re going to find yourself thankful that the Hackney brothers are now in your life.

Directors: Jeff Howlett, Mark Covino
Starring: Bobby Hackney Sr., Dannis Hackney, David Hackney, Bobbie Duncan
Release Date: June 28th (also available on VOD)