We live in the middle of a golden age of documentaries. For the past few years, music documentaries have featured prominently in my Top Ten lists. Paul Williams: Still Alive and Searching for Sugar Man were among my favorite movies last year, and this year Beware of Mr. Baker will probably sit beside sit title on my year-end list.
What this cross-section of music docs has in common is at least the perception that the subject documented has fallen out of the public eye. The story behind Death goes further than that. The all-black power trio from Detroit played a fierce and fast rock and roll that, like fellow Detroit bands like the MC5 and The Stooges, anticipated punk. Until a few years ago, hardly anyone had heard them.
Death only released one 45 in their lifetime, and as the story goes, were almost signed by Clive Davis. The Arista Records impresario was ready to snap up their debut album, recorded at Detroit’s legendary United Sound Recording Studio, on one condition: they change their name. David Hackney, one of three brothers who made up the band, had developed a fairly positive symbolism around the band’s name, and refused to change, leaving the demo tape to smolder in obscurity for decades.
The band may have been ahead of their time but they were not influential. By the time the 45s got into the hands of hipsters, their music was quaint and their name an asset. The movie’s strength is that it doesn’t depend on the music for its dramatic weight. This is a movie about family: three brothers trying to make it as musicians in a Detroit whose black music scene was generally more favorable to R&B acts (the P-Funk Diaspora aside), a mother who supported her sons’ creative ventures even if the din drove her crazy, and supportive siblings with great personality and affection for each other.
A third-act sidebar brings in the outside world. When Death’s sole 45, “Politicians in My Eyes,” got into the hands of record collector/former Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra, word began to spread, and reached critical mass around the time of a New York Times article in 2009, the same year their 1974 album …For The Whole World To See was finally released on Drag City.
The band’s discovery could have made for an annoying aside – the always self-righteous Henry Rollins is the most prominent of the hipster talking heads assembled. These celebrity appearances are thankfully kept to a minimum, and the next generation of the family rises to the occasion to make this music come to life again. Even if you don’t think Death is the second coming of rock and roll, as a movie, A Band Called Death rocks hard.
A Band Called Death will be available for digital download and VOD on Friday, May 24. Pre-order on iTunes here.