Judge Gordon Sullivan once played in a jug band that was a forerunner of punk.
Before there was punk, there was A Band Called Death
Always beware of origins, especially musical ones. I say this because it's ultimately impossible to know where something started, even something as seemingly omnipresent as "punk." Many people point to 1976 and the rise of the Sex Pistols as the place punk started—but the Sex Pistols wouldn't have happened without the New York Dolls, and the Dolls were contemporaries of, and influenced by, the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. The Stooges were part of the Detroit scene, which included bands like MC5, whose Kick out the Jams influenced several generations of musicians with their take-no-prisoners sound. The MC5 earned their stripes opening for bands like Cream and Big Brother and the Holding Company, who were influenced by the revival of the blues going on in England at the time. Which itself owed something to the way that rock 'n' roll travelled through both American and England. I could go on. The point is that it's not that hard to find a "Before there was punk there was X" story, and a group or movement uncovered as a precursor to another sound has to stand on its own to be worthwhile, unable to trade in on any familial associations. A Band Called Death is one such case, where the music and the story of the band are both interesting enough that even those who hate punk will find something to appreciate.
The story is amazing, but fairly simple. A trio of brothers form a band in Detroit in the early 1970s. They're influenced by the other bands in the area to play a harder, faster version of rock 'n' roll despite the predominance of the Motown sound. They record some music and are offered a record contract. The record company's only stipulation is that the name has to go, but the brothers are unwilling to abandon the name Death. At this point, the brothers change locations and two of them form a reggae act, the life of Death largely forgotten. Still, the tapes survive, and when the eldest brother passes away he entrusts the music to his siblings, telling them to release the music when the world is ready for it. That moment came in the twenty-first century, as Death's music was received to an appreciative audience that saw how Death's music connected Motown and punk after their lone single started seeing bootleg digital distribution. A Band Called Death documents the lives of these brothers while giving us a picture of how their music has been received in the new millennium.
It's a ridiculous story, the kind of underdog tale that Hollywood likes to trot out during awards season. I can even see the film's final scene, as the honor of a posthumous Grammy is given to the band, gratefully accepted by the surviving brothers—except this is a true story. The history of popular music is littered with one-hit wonders and forgotten stars, but this kind of comeback story is rare in established artists, let alone with a band who only released one single that didn't even chart.
The best thing about A Band Called Death is that it eschews the typical format for so many fawning rock documentaries that assume the viewer is a fan of the band. The film wisely decides to limit its focus on the music. Sure, there's some performance footage and excerpts from the original masters, but it aims for a wider audience by going deeper. This is a family story, and that's what makes the film worth watching for anyone with an interest in documentaries, not just punk fans.
A Band Called Death really starts after the release of the band's original material in 2009 with the album …For the Whole World to See (though Jeff Howlett had been working on the project since the 1990s). The interest was so great that the surviving brothers decided to make Death a going concern again and recruited a new guitarist. A Band Called Death tracks forward, following this search and the opportunities that spring up for the band in the wake of the release of this material. The rest of the film looks backward, telling the story of those fateful days in the 1970s, leading into the formation of the band, their shot at Columbia records, and their dissolution after the disillusion caused by the name-change request. Again wisely, filmmakers Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett have decided this isn't a story about the music world, with cigar-wielding fat cats lording it over struggling musicians, but instead it's a story of family. We follow the brothers, and eventually the extended family of mothers, wives, and children as they discuss what it means to be part of the Hackney clan.
Of course, the music world isn't entirely ignored. Figures like Alice Cooper (whose live show catalyzed the nascent formation of the band), Henry Rollins, and Kid Rock show up to provide context or insight into the music and the scene that the brothers faced in the early 1970s.
The A Band Called Death (Blu-ray) from Drafthouse Films does the film justice. Despite the variety of formats represented in the final film, this 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks great. Detail is sharp, especially in contemporary footage. Older material has been given extra TLC so that the whole package looks of a piece. There are, of course, lots of talking heads and things like that, but care has still been lavished on the look of the film. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is equally impressive. Boasting lots of dynamic range and always-audible dialogue, this track showcases the music perfectly. The surrounds are probably unnecessary, but the core of this track—the interview audio—couldn't be better.
The impressive slate of extras starts off with two commentaries. The first features the filmmakers (moderated by Drafthouse executive Evan Husney), who happily discuss the long gestation and sometimes difficult conditions that A Band Called Death required. We learn about the various people involved were recruited and how the filmmakers gained the trust of the Hackney family over the long haul. A second commentary features that same Hackney family, with the two original, surviving members of Death joined by two of their children. The quartet discuss the film and the impact that its subject and filmmaking have had on their lives, and it's an insightful discussion all around. We then get 60 minutes of concert footage by the reconstituted Death at the 2013 SXSW festival. Another SXSW appearance offers us an 8-minute Q&A with the band, while another Q&A from the Vermont International Film Festival unites the band members with the filmmakers for 13 minutes of footage. Almost an hour of deleted scenes are included as well. These offer different pathways through the film's material, as well as stuff that was obviously excised for time. A live promo music video for "Let the World Turn" is included, as well as a set of trailers for the film and for the band's tours. The set also includes a booklet with an intro for the film by a member of MC5 and an essay by archivist Zack Carlson.
A Band Called Death is remarkable on every level. Its core story is an amazing tale of musical endurance backed by family love. The film itself makes the wise choice of following the family instead of the fortune and fame, and the A Band Called Death (Blu-ray) release packages the whole thing up in a neat presentation with substantial extras. Recommended to anyone with an interest in family, music, or documentary.
Don't let the name throw you off: A Band Called Death is not guilty.
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