A Band Called Death is an oral history of a band called Death (surprise), the first black punk band (and one of the first punk bands, full stop, even if they didn’t call themselves that at the time). Formed in Detroit in the early ‘70s, their music was vital and visionary, but never caught the attention of record companies. An independently pressed record lingered in dusty record stores before becoming a sought-after relic of these trailblazers.
This is a familiar story in recent cinema. Most reviews of A Band Called Death make mention of Searching for Sugarman and/or Anvil: The Story of Anvil, and the influence of such talent-to-not-quite-rise-to-fall-to-belated-rise musical odysseys is hard to miss. The impulse to follow in these documentaries’ footsteps is understandable – particularly given the former won an Oscar! – but it ultimately does a disservice to the film, drawing attention away from the most compelling story in favour of providing a crowd-pleasing happy ending.
Let’s start with the good stuff: specifically, let’s start by talking about David Hackney. Death’s line-up was the three Hackney brothers: Bobby, Dannis and David. The documentary is built around extensive conversations with the former two brothers, who went on to form a reggae band in the eighties before largely abandoning music, but the death of David in 2000 means that – some rudimentary recordings and wedding footage aside – his voice and presence is sublimated by the living brothers.
And yet, David’s spirit has a potency and force that ensures whenever the films directs itself in concert with him, channelling his vision, it commands attention. David’s family talk about how his creativity and craziness were inextricably intertwined; it’s clear from the snippets of his writing and half-remembered conversations that he was one of those rare, preternaturally gifted artists. Someone with a vision, someone with purpose. David was defined by a powerful resolve to deliver his message his way. While Death’s lack of success can be attributed to numerous factors – racism, the rise of disco, simple bad luck – their controversial-at-the-time name was a key cause for their inability to get a record deal. David’s artistic integrity was unmoving; their name was their identity, and it would not change.
David’s story is the antidote to the conventional American rock fable. He was everything a “rock star” should be – volatile, passionate, immensely talented, and increasingly defined by a predilection for intoxicants. We’re so conditioned to expect a happy ending to this story; a diamond in the rough refusing to budge, creating success on their own terms. Yet David died, forgotten, with only an enduring belief in Death’s music. He told his brothers, not long before his death, “They’re going to come looking for the master tapes one day.”
The last act of A Band Called Death chronicles that day, years after David passes away, when the world comes to find the master tapes that he’d carefully stored. It’s around here that the documentary’s focus shifts from a moving tale of an unrecognised genius to a happy ending where the band is, at long last, recognised and celebrated. It never quite succeeds; partly because it’s so familiar (if you’ve seen Sugarman or Anvil, you’ll know where it’s going), but largely because it feels like a distraction from a more comprehensive examination of the punk-god-who-never-was, David Hackney.
A Band Called Death is undeniably a good – verging on great – documentary. It examines an important musical scene, sheds light on an undeservedly-forgotten band and manages to weave compelling threads of the importance of religion and family through it all. It’s entertaining and moving and well-made. Yet I couldn’t feel disappointed that a stronger focus on the legacy of David or a consideration of the question – what happens when true art goes unrecognised? – would’ve broken the film from the shackles of conventionality, even if it might have polluted the purity of that all-important happy ending.