Death comes back to life in “A Band Called Death,” Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett’s unexpectedly emotional docu on the revival of an African-American rock group that’s among those to usher in punk music. The filmmakers’ savvy structural decisions yield powerful momentum and compelling interest from start to finish, fusing the strengths of a nonfiction narrative, featuring a memorably haunting subject, with a music movie’s entertainment value. Fest play should rock both Stateside and abroad, with distrib groupies in tow.
Brothers David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney grew up in their loving mom’s Detroit home in the early ’70s, sponging up the sounds of the Who and Jimi Hendrix rather than their friends’ Motown and funk favorites. As they describe it from a present-day standpoint, eldest brother David prompted them to explore the outer reaches of rock as they jammed in their bedroom, coming up with a sound nobody around their parts had ever heard before.
Coining the commercially fatal name Death as the group’s moniker, David also wrote the lyrics (for such future underground legendary tracks as “Keep on Knocking”) and, borrowing a page from the prog-rock playbook, fashioned the band’s high-concept metaphysical thematics. The amusing, amazing episode that brings the lads to a first-rate Detroit recording studio lends the tale its first of several impossible-but-true incidents (including a bona fide full-length LP recording), followed by David incredibly turning down an offer from Clive Davis to sign with Arista Records because of Davis’ sole condition: Drop the name Death.
As it was, the trio’s revolutionary sound never hit the radio while David was leader, and a relative’s offer to bring them to Vermont proved a life-changer, as Bobby and Dannis never returned to Detroit. The 1980s saw a gradual split, as David returned to their hometown with wife, Heidi, who calls him “a dreamer,” while the more pragmatic but less visionary Bobby and Dannis formed a locally popular reggae group.
David increasingly becomes a ghostlike figure in the film, a study in extraordinary talent stifled before it could fully develop. Almost invisibly, “A Band Called Death” evolves into a detective story and a nearly miraculous tale of the next generation of a family restoring the memory and art of one of its elders. Long neglected, the tapes of the original Detroit sessions are found in a garage, and through the kind of hardcore network that exists only in subgenres of pop music, word spreads that one of the rarest punk records of all time has resurfaced. The pic’s onstage emotional climax is the kind of music moment you just can’t make up. Covino and Howlett and their ever-ready cameras are there to cover all of it, having been granted remarkable access by the family. Although talking-heads segments are plentiful, their lively air avoids stodginess. The Detroit recording session segment comprises vibrant animation of black-and-white photos.