Directed by: Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett.
Last year, the wonderful, Oscar winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man told the improbably story of Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who released two albums in the early 1970s that were virtually ignored in America, but somehow found their way to South Africa and were huge hits. Rodriguez gave up music, worked for years in construction, and never knew that he was a musical icon in South Africa until decades later. Now comes another documentary – A Band Called Death – which also focuses on little known musicians from Detroit, who became famous years after the band broke up, and it’s driving force died. Death was a banded formed by the Hackney brothers – guitarist and songwriter David, bassist and vocalist Bobby and drummer Dannis. Although they were black, in Detroit, in the early 1970s where everyone expected them to sing Motown, they were a rock band. Or as a famed New York Times article that appeared in 2009 was headlined “This Band Was Punk Before Punk Was Punk”. Listening now to the band’s one and only album – never released at the time – is to hear the hallmarks of punk music a few years before The Ramones and the Sex Pistols ever appeared. They were visionaries that nobody ever heard of.
What happened to Death is as improbable as what happened to Rodriguez – perhaps even more so. They were signed to a contract and recorded their seven song album, but no record label wanted to release the album – perhaps they would have had the band been willing to change their name, but David was insistent – this band’s named was Death, and it was staying that way. Somehow, David got the master tapes of Death’s album – and spent the next three decades believing that someday, people would come looking for this music. The band eventually disbanded, Bobby and Dannis went on to form a reggae band, and David toiled in obscurity before dying far too young. But then a strange thing happened. People started listening to Death. They only had 500 copies of a doubled sided single pressed – and these became highly sought after by collectors. They also had a song on an obscure album about obscure punk bands from the 1970s. The songs started being played at underground parties – and people loved it. Than Bobby’s son heard of the band, and did some research, only to discover that the band was his father and two uncles. And suddenly, just as Dave predicted, people came looking for those Death master tapes.
A Band Called Death is perhaps more conventional than Searching for Sugar Man, but no less satisfying. While Searching for Sugar Man was the documentary equivalent of a mystery – searching out the reclusive genius – A Band Called Death doesn’t hide the Hackney brothers away until the final act. Instead, it puts them front and center – which is a good thing, because part of what makes A Band Called Death such a good documentary is how emotional it is. You can tell the Hackney brothers loved each other – and how emotional the two surviving members of Death are when recalling their brother David – who in their words was a “genius” type, who eventually smoked and drank himself into an early grave. It had to be frustrating from him, being ahead of his time by only a few years and never getting any credit for it.
Documentaries were made for movies like A Band Called Death – you couldn’t make up what happened to this band, how they were virtually rejected for a decade, unknown for two more, and then finally found their niche – and starting getting the credit they deserve. Perhaps a screenwriter could come up with the story, but who would ever believe it? Like the music of Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man, the music by Death truly is great. Politicians in My Eyes in particular is a great punk song, but the entire album (which we hear, although cut up, throughout the movie) should have made Death famous when they recorded it way back in 1975. Better late than never I guess.