Co-directed by Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett in 2012, the documentary A Band Called Death tells the story of three brothers from Detroit who, in the early seventies, started a band. While Motown was ruling the city at the time, these kids started off playing funk but soon wanted nothing more than to play rock n roll. Made up of band leader David Hackney on guitar, Dannis on drums and Bobby on bass and vocals, they were influenced by the likes of The Who, The Beatles and Alice Cooper. After their father Earl passed away, the victim of a drunk driver, David started becoming increasingly spiritual in a lot of ways and he convinced the other two to change the band's name to Death. And so they did. And inside the family home in a room upstairs their mother let them practice from 3pm until 6pm each day, much to the dismay of the neighbors.
As they practiced, they started to get some attention. These kids were writing songs that dealt with spirituality but so too were the writing songs with a political angle. Not only that, but they were taking the Motown influence that they grew up with and mixing it up in interesting ways with ‘white boy music,' and so we hear a lot of MC5 and Stooges style pre-punk working its way into their sound. As the band got better, David spearheaded their efforts to get a record deal. A visit to a local studio got them in the door and a demo was recorded and then shopped around to different labels. The pressed a single and handed it out to radio stations to get some publicity moving but it didn't work. None of the labels would bite because at the time the general consensus was that nobody would listen to a band called Death. They were given an offer on the condition that they changed their name, but David convinced the others to stick to their guns and the others agreed, always promising to back one another no matter what.
With their hopes more or less dashed they moved to Vermont, but again came up against rejection time and again. When they finally dead change their name to The Fourth Movement, David's spiritual side was playing such a large role in what they were doing that a local newspaper review slagged them for preaching. And that was more or less the end of it. David moved back to Detroit and the other two stayed in Vermont and started a reggae band called Lambsbread while making ends meet with other jobs. David would pass away in the early 2000s but before he did he gave his brothers the master tape, telling them that after he was gone, people would come looking for their music. Shortly after, that 45 that was pressed thirty some odd years ago started going for big money in collector's circles. Some MP3s were uploaded online and people started asking about this band, if there were any other recordings around and what their story was. When the Bobby Hackney's son heard one of the songs played at a party and instantly recognized his father's voice, the blinders came off. Death's album was released, the band reformed with Lambsbread's guitar player filling David's shoes, and a band that had faded into obscurity without anyone realizing what trailblazers they really were had finally received some well-deserved recognition.
This is as much a story of family and of brotherhood as it is about an obscure rock band being rediscovered long after their initial attempts at making it. We learn firsthand in their own words why the Hackney's chose the path that they did and we learn in no uncertain terms just how much their late brother David meant to them and how his spiritual side had such a huge impact on Death. The Hackney's come across as sincerely nice guys, and as very appreciative of the cult resurgence that has occurred since their recordings were unearthed. Their enthusiasm is infectious and their graciousness truly humbling. Even now, having been back together for a few years and played quite a few shows (often with their sons' band Rough Francis, named after their Uncle David, opening for them) they pay tribute to David and dedicate their performances to him. These guys know and respect their roots, the understand and continue to respect the importance of family and that's so obviously a huge part of what makes this band as interesting as it is.
The movie itself is very well made. There's a load of archival photographs here and some video clips as well, some of which document the band some of which offer a glimpse into the Hackney family's life (a wedding video, for example). There are interviews here with family members, with those who helped to get that old 45 record to the label that would reissue the demo, with musicians like Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra and Mick Collins and Ben Blackwell (of Detroit's The Dirtbombs). We also hear from the guys at Groovesville about recording those demos and shopping it around and get to check out the studio where it all happened, surprisingly unchanged since the early seventies. Plenty of interesting photographs are used throughout to document the history of the group, many of them having been manipulated digitally to give them a 3-D effect or a sense of movement (the trail of smoke off of David's cigarette swirls from the bottom of the screen to the top, for example). This gives the movie some nice style and makes it more interesting to look at had it just been assembled out of talking head interview clips. Of course, there's a lot of music used very effectively throughout the entire movie, much of which is from the Hackney's various projects and some of which is just some fitting music that works in the context of the story. It all comes together, it all works and A Band Called Death turns out to be a great mix of ‘truth is stranger than fiction' biography and simultaneously a touching story about one family's journey through the ups and downs of the music business.The Blu-ray:
A Band Called Death arrives on Blu-ray in a 1.78.1 widescreen presentation with AVC encoding in 1080p high definition. Shot on digital video cameras but making extensive use of VHS sourced archival footage and plenty of older still photographs from throughout the Hackneys' lives, quality is understandably a bit all over the place. The newly show footage looks great, it's nice and colorful and detailed, while the older archival bits are understandably rough around the edges. Many of the photographs that are used have had different foreground elements separated from the background elements to give them a 3-D effect, which actually works really well and helps to make the visuals more interesting than they would be otherwise. The transfer itself is solid, however, just be prepared to accept any faults that exist with the source material and enjoy the movie. The disc is nicely authored showing no serious issues with compression or noise reduction. All in all, a pretty nice image given the origins of the movie itself.Sound:
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix on this release is a good one. Additionally an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is included as are optional English closed captions. Music is used well throughout the movie and it has a good bit of power and punch behind it and the lossless mix actually does a very effective job of spreading this around throughout the different channels in the surround setup. Most of the movie, however, is dialogue based with the Hackney's and other participants telling their story. This comes through nice and clear without any distortion or hiss of any kind. Again, some of the archival clips have tape hiss and waver but you can't fault the disc for that. The movie sounds very good for the most part, no complaints here.Extras:
The extras on the disc start off with a commentary track with co-directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett moderated by Drafthouse Films' own Evan Husney and it's a pretty revealing talk. This movie was made over the span of a few years and geography sometimes played a detrimental part in its production but these two men overcame all of that, among other obstacles, and got what was obviously a big labor of love finished and finished properly. There's a lot of focus here on getting to know the Hackney family, convincing them to open up for the cameras and the relationships that evolved over the course of time. The end result is a fairly personal track, one that's almost as interesting and yes, even at times as touching, as the movie itself. Husney keeps the duo on topic and asks some good questions and the track is a very nice addition to the disc.
There's also a second commentary on the disc that lets Bobby and Dannis Hackney team up with son's Bobby Jr. and Urian to discuss their side of the story. While they relay much of the same information here that we learn in the feature itself, there's enough of a focus on the experiences that they had being rediscovered leading up to the making of the documentary and going through the experience of making the feature itself that it's definitely worth a listen. The Hackney's came across as a genuinely nice group of guys in the feature and that remains true here as well, you definitely get a sense of how appreciative they are of everything that has happened to them over the last few years. We also learn, as we did in the movie itself, how difficult it was at times reliving much of this. It's a great track and definitely worth your time.
Drafthouse have also included a sixty minute featurette entitled DEATH Live at SXSW 2013 in which the band plays to a pretty packed audience at a Texas venue. It takes them a few minutes to get set up (during which you can clearly hear someone in the audience mutter something to the effect of ‘after all the hype these guys had better be worth it') but once they do, they put on a pretty good show. The camera work here isn't the best: the shots from the stage that capture bass and drums are okay but a lot of the material here is shot from the back of the club and with the stage being low, you can't see the band as well as you might want to. The sound quality is solid, however, so consider this more of a free live recording. On that level it's fun.
Also found on the disc are nineteen deleted scenes running fifty-five minutes in length. Included here is some footage of the Hackney's revisiting the park they used to play at as kids (which they note is now not save to be in after dark), some more of David's prank calls, bits at the Groovesville production studio, the band talking about Motown, an interview with Wayne Kramer and quite a bit more. This material was likely cut to keep the running time down but much of it is very interesting and if you enjoyed the feature and want more, here it is.
From there we catch up with some of the festival showings that were arranged for the movie. First up is a seven minute Q&A From SXSW 2010 in which Dannis and Bobby Hackney, and Bobbie Duncan take some questions from the festival crowd about the history of the band. We also get a slightly lengthier thirteen-minute Q&A At The Vermont International Film Festival segment where the three members of the band join Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett for a discussion of the band and the documentary. Rounding out the extras are a slew of trailers and promo spots for the feature, a music video for the track ‘Let The World Turn' (it's a concert video), trailers for a bunch of unrelated Drafthouse Films releases, menus and chapter stops. Inside the keepcase is an insert booklet containing an introduction from The MC5's Wayne Kramer and an essay on the band by Drafthouse's Zach Carlson. There's a second insert included inside the case that contains a download code for a digital copy of the movie.Final Thoughts:
A Band Called Death is a fascinating movie not just in how it details the evolution and rediscovery of a musical trio so obviously ahead of its time but also in how it shows the importance of the family dynamic that played such a huge part in all of this. The movie is at times hilarious, tragic, inspiring and moving, letting us get to know the Hackney's in a surprisingly personal way giving the material so much more weight because of it. On top of that, Death's music is seriously great, and so we wind up with a movie that really works amazingly well on a whole bunch of different levels. Sure, it'll help if you're into punk and garage rock going in, but even if you're not the story here is so compelling you'll probably enjoy it anyway. Drafthouse have rolled out the red carpet for the Blu-ray release, offering the movie up in very nice shape and with a fantastic collection of extra features. Highly recommended.