Existing roughly from 1974 to 1980, Death — a Detroit trio of African-American siblings named David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney — was virtually unknown before 2009.
They self-released one absolutely ripping hard rock single (“Politicians In My Eyes” b/w “Keep On Knockin’”) in 1976. It fell into the hands of record collectors and few others.
Then, in 2009, Drag City Records released “Death … For the Whole World to See” which compiled unreleased Death tracks and that obscure single. It was pretty astonishing stuff: This was early punk rock in everything but name.
Directed by first-time feature documentarians Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett and told mostly in talking heads and vintage recordings, “A Band Called Death” is that story, from the brothers’ days in working-class Detroit to their unlikely rediscovery in the 21st century.
Even if you have no connection to the music, “A Band Called Death” resonates. More than anything else, the movie is about family — how we support them and they support us, what we sacrifice for them, how they inspire us and hold us back, what we tell them and what we leave out.
Raised in Detroit by a electrical lineman/preacher father and housewife mother, the Hackney boys (including older brother Earl) lived by an unshakable creed: Back up your brother. So they never fought, channeling their youthful energy into music, moving from funk and R&B to rock after David saw life-changing sets by the Who and Alice Cooper.
Their parents were beyond supportive — the brothers note their dad made them watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and their mom made them rehearse from 3 to 6 p.m. every day.
But things changed after their father was killed in a car accident trying to save the life of a fellow lineman. It hit David hard, and he became obsessed with death as “the ultimate trip,” even naming their band that. Backing up their brother, the siblings went along with it.
The market was stacked against them anyway, but when David refused to change the name even after a studio session yielded a potential contract from Clive Davis, something breaks in Dannis and Bobby. More than willing to scrap the name, the brothers begin to doubt David’s vision.
By 1980, all three had moved to Vermont. After a brief flirtation with gospel-rock, Bobby and Dannis stayed and formed a reggae band called Lambsbread, while David headed back to Detroit and into the bottle.
David never wavered from his obsession with Death and gave the master tapes to his brothers prior to his passing in 2000: “The world will come looking for these some day,” David said. (It’s striking that the the next Hackney generation — Bobby’s sons Bobby Jr., Urian and Julian — got into punk on their own, without knowing a thing about their dad’s old band.)
The back half of the film concerns the rediscovery and is a nice primer on how music works. Collectors hunt records, buy them on eBay, and someone — in this case, influential zine editor and graphic designer Henry Ownings — puts MP3s of it on a website, and suddenly everyone who might want to care has a chance to hear it.
“A Band Called Death” is most powerful when it balances family and memory. Julian Hackney, a punk rock fan who had no idea the stuff was in his blood, is astounded to hear his dad’s voice on the “Politicians in My Eyes” single at record party. (Julian: “I’m like ‘Dad! Why didn’t you tell me?”) You can’t help thinking that somewhere David is thrilled to see it all come true. But you also wish he had the chance to see it happen.
‘A Band Called Death’
Starring: Dannis Hackney, Bobby Hackney, David Hackney, Alice Cooper
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Theater: Alamo Village