Published Aug 15, 2013Shortly before punk rock took the world by storm in the mid-'70s, with the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash, there was a group of three African-American brothers in Detroit tapping into the same primal energy, with little of the fanfare. Chronicling the unfathomable story of how the band's exceptional music finally earned the recognition it deserved, A Band Called Death is a moving testament to the enduring bonds of family and the power of rock'n'roll.
Playing instruments that were purchased from a supportive mother's settlement following a car accident, the Hackney trio — bassist/lead singer Bobby, drummer Dannis and guitarist David — attracted noise complaints from neighbours long before record deals. David was usually the mad genius leading the charge, whether it was deciding on the controversial moniker shortly after their father's passing or soliciting the services of a recording studio based on a literal throw of a dart.
Eventually drawing the attention of music mogul Clive Davis, it was also David who stood firm in his refusal to change the band's name, effectively torpedoing any chance of success in the process. While Bobby and Dannis ended up in Vermont playing in a fledgling reggae group, David returned to Detroit, where he lived a quiet life with his wife before succumbing to lung cancer in 2000.
The details of the group's unlikely resurrection recall those of Rodriguez, another unheralded Detroit musician whose story was documented in Searching For Sugar Man. But where his was a pre-Internet sensation occurring concurrently on a different continent, Death's is very much a modern case of digital proliferation.
As with Rodriguez though, it wouldn't amount to much unless the music was revelatory enough to warrant the attention, and scorching songs like "Politicians in My Eyes" certainly live up to the hype. Death's proto-punk sound can be attributed to influences like the Who and Alice Cooper, combined with the pure distillation of the restlessness and unbridled creativity of youth.
Interviews with prominent musicians like Henry Rollins are used only sparingly to establish context, aside from the crucial role Jello Biafra played in bringing Death's music to light. This keeps the focus right where it belongs, with the charismatic duo of Bobby and Dannis, later assisted by the next generation of Hackneys, relaying the inspiring events.
It's difficult to know if it was merely wishful thinking or some divine premonition that led a dying David to tell his brother to take good care of their master tapes because someone would eventually be coming for them. The mere existence of this incredible movie only affirms that he didn't know the half of it. (Films We Like)