Life to Death 

Doc recovers the story of an unlikely punk band

There are two narratives that dominate documentaries about rock and roll musicians. First, there is the, "They done good, got famous, did tons of blow, then lost 'what mattered most' before returning to the stage and $185-per-ticket tours." Examples of this include the entirety of VH1's "Behind the Music" series. The second dominant storyline could be called "What might have been." This narrative is the most heartbreaking and ultimately most satisfying rock and roll tale; and this is the story of Detroit's Hackney brothers, the subjects of the 2013 film titled A Band Called Death.

Death's sound is often described as proto-punk. It is loud, driving, ass-kicking hard rock. Other Michigan-based acts like MC5 and the Stooges worked the same musical mine as Death and received a lot of attention from music rags like Rolling Stone and writers such as Lester Bangs. Death didn't receive that attention. What makes Death's story different is that the musicians are African-American. To play what one relative in the film calls "white boy music" in the 1960s, in the Motor City, the home of Motown Records (of Marvin Gaye, people!), in a predominately black neighborhood is unusual enough. To be great at doing it is a whole other game.

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Like many other American musicians, guitarist and band visionary David Hackney picked up a guitar after seeing the Beatles on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964. With the support of their parents, the boys—David on guitar, Bobby on drums and Dannis on bass—relentlessly rehearsed in a cramped upstairs bedroom for years while neighbors howled about the noise and called the police.

An early incarnation of the band was known by the awesome moniker Rock Fire Funk Express. That original band name is illustrative of the way in which the brothers straddled the "white" and "black" music worlds. "If I could play chords like Pete Townsend and leads like Jimi Hendrix, I'd be the perfect guitarist," David says at one point in the film. (That is still a fact.) Death's major influences also included white artists such as Alice Cooper, and groups predominately influenced by black rhythm and blues. The film doesn't dig too much into the racial segregation of musical flavors. Instead, it offers a "show, don't tell" approach. While it seems cool—nay, required—for white artists to be influenced by black artists, the inverse doesn't seem to be the case for black artists who, like Death, can find themselves pariahs in their musical and social communities, particularly when it comes to rock music.

The search for acceptance, recognition and fame becomes even more elusive once David rechristens the band Death in 1971, after a car accident kills their father. The negative response to the new name by the suits at record companies (including the Mephistophelian star-finder Clive Davis) seems a bit old-fashioned these days, especially considering how raw and well-played Death's recordings sound. But David wanted complete control of his vision, telling Bobby and Dannis, "If you give them the title of the band, then you give them everything else."

Ultimately, the lack of success took its toll on the members. In 1977, the same year punk "broke," Death dissolved. It was a musical era that undoubtedly would've embraced the band's name and sound (After all, '77 is the year all-black punk rock legends Bad Brains formed).

With few photos, no live footage of the original threesome, and little professionally recorded music, filmmakers Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett seem to stumble right from the beginning with "Behind the Music"-esque sound bites from usual suspects Henry Rollins and self-anointed Detroit Ambassador, Kid Rock. Not to worry, the filmmakers quickly eschew this format and instead find an emotional center for the film via interviews with brothers Dannis and Bobby, whose big smiles, massive dreads and incredible leather coats make you want to root for them. David, the undisputed leader and musical prophet, passed away in 2000, but his presence is felt in the brothers' voices. They share stories about his faith in what they were doing and his faith in the world, which he saw as a place where death wasn't something to be feared, but rather explored and embraced. The final act of the film follows the unlikely rediscovery of the band by record-collecting super-geeks and by Bobby Hackney's own children, who were unaware the band had existed—all of which supports David's prophecy that the world will come looking for Death's music someday.

A Band Called Death screens at the Roxy Theater Fri., Aug. 2, through Sun., Aug. 4, at 7:15 and 9:15 PM. $7/$6 seniors and students/$5 kids 13 and under.

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