A Near Death Experience: A Band Called Death Opens Tonight at Texas Theatre

Categories: Film and TV

The audience for A Band Called Death, the new documentary by Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett opening tonight at Texas Theatre, is a self-selected batch. That's because Death, a group that first cut its demo in Detroit back in 1974, went unknown until that same 45 resurfaced at a record store in the late '90s.

It was one of just 500 printed and somehow, the right people found it.

Those lost sounds are now heralded as punk's precursor. And thanks to a new generation of fans, the group's two-song demo was finally compiled with the trio's other early recordings and released as an album in the late aughts. Granted, this all happened 35 years after Death began, and about 30 after they'd given up.

"It's one of those things that keeps you going to the record store," says Henry Rollins in a cameo snippet, "hoping for another great story like that."

He's right. Death's narrative is pure digger fantasy. And not because those early 45's now flip for about a grand on Ebay. The story of Death, or really, the story of musical prophet/guitarist/visionary David Hackney, satisfies the neurotic region of the record hoarder's brain. It's a logical lobe, and it understands that record label contracts are like star gates: opening and closing for brief moments in time, leaving some of the most innovative musicians stranded in LP limbo.

That's what happened to Death, three well-mannered black brothers from the Motor City, who were playing the essence of punk before the genre had a formal name. Under David's direction and their mother's generous rules regarding indoor practice sessions, the Hackney sons ripped through everything from Alice Cooper to The Who and Hendrix. Then, David picked the strongest elements of each, merged them and filtered them through a triangular spectrum, and Death was born.

Their demo was sent out into a world that wasn't ready for it, marketed by a record label that didn't specialize in their style. The rejection letters poured in. And when Colombia Records' Clive Davis saw value in their music, David Hackney shuts the offer down. They could have had a start back in the mid-70s, been 20 grand richer -- all they'd need to do is bend over and change the name of the band to something less intimidating, says Davis.

That didn't happen.

Brothers Dannis and Bobby wound up in New England, starting an unfortunate reggae project named Lambsbread while David drank in Detroit. A Death fanbase never formed. There were no requests for an encore. Meanwhile, the recordings sat in an attic. Fast forward to present: The two remaining members are finally getting their due, a bitter sweet reckoning since it was David who had the vision, refused to back down and played as if steered by a higher power.

What we get from the film at its best is the glimpse into David's musical focus and integrity. As the credits roll, your faith in music is restored. You've got proof that a rare few tap into something oddly magical, then back up their craft with conviction. It's nice to feel that way; it's like remembering that love and other unlikely intangibles are real and possible. At it's weakest, ABCD gives you an uncomfortable case of rock and roll blue balls. This is mostly due to a lack of source material; the filmmakers only have seven songs to work with (five solid ones) and no early footage of the boys playing live, if they ever did. These songs, the whole reason you're investing time into the interview, are spliced and chopped throughout, rather than played at length. Also, they should arrive earlier in the film.

Choruses emerge, then dip away. Guitar riffs press hard, then back off. But there isn't a time where you hear a song like the awesomely titled "Politicians in my Eyes," or the anthemic "Freakin Out," beginning to end. You need that. After all: Death's story is great, but its music is better.

Those who already bought the Drag City-released Death album, or those who caught the reformed group on the Orange Stage at FunFunFun Fest in '09 will get comfy and settle right in. Congratulations: this is one for the fans. Those who walk in looking for a first Death experience could feel overwhelmed with backstory and underwhelmed with backbeats. I suggest you try it on first, then go see the film.

Bonus: ABCD's producer Scott Mosier (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy) will be at the first Texas Theatre screening tonight on Wednesday, July 3 at 7 p.m. A Band Called Death plays through Sunday, July 7.

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