If you’re like I was, and you’ve never heard of an MC5-esque black punk band from Detroit called “Death,” A Band Called Death is going to take a long time getting you there. But when it does, hold onto your handkerchiefs because shit’s about to get touching. In telling the story of a forgotten punk trio with a vision, Drafthouse’s new documentary from Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett bears more than a passing similarity to the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Amazingly, it might be even harder to get through without tearing up, at least for lesser viewers (NICE TRY, PUNKS, THESE EYEBALLS DON’T RUN, OOH RAH!). And while A Band Called Death might suffer a bit for having been pre-empted thematically, Searching for Sugar Man had to massage the truth a bit to spurt that heartwarming ending. They conveniently left out the part where Rodriguez toured Australia with Midnight Oil years after we’re led to believe that he assumed he’d been forgotten. Sorry, bros, that’s cheating. To my knowledge, A Band Called Death doesn’t commit any similar lies by omission, and in any case, the unfairly-forgotten rockstar story it has to tell is even wilder and more emotional. And I mean that in a good way, not in a bipolar actress kind of way.
Raised in Detroit, David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney are three brothers – by virtue of biology as well as by being three black guys hanging out together in the seventies – who dreamed of playing loud and kicking ass like The Who. They called themselves “Death,” based on a vision David had while staring at the clouds, and in 1974, recorded a demo of fast, hard-driving rock songs that inadvertently stole the balls-out sound of later bands like The Ramones, Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols, et. al. Only no one wanted to buy it at the time, mainly because the band was called “Death.” Which doesn’t seem like that much worse of a name than “The Who” or “The Guess Who,” but whatever. They could’ve just changed the name, but hey, man, you don’t argue with clouds. The demo collected dust in an attic somewhere for a while, while the members of the band gradually gave up and went on their separate ways, playing, at various times, Christian soul music, and cheesy reggae, with songs like “Fire Up the Ganja,” which might be the most generic-sounding reggae track of all time.
And then… And then…
A Band Called Death is a perfect illustration of the two central questions facing every non-fiction writer or filmmaker: namely, how much do you assume the audience knows about the subject going in, and, secondly, in what order do you present the information? Do you lead with the hook or start at the beginning? A Band Called Death starts at the beginning, assuming you’ll stick around long enough for the hook. A ballsy choice, certainly, but is it the right one? I don’t know. When the New York Times wrote about Death in 2009, they started in the present. The piece laid out the stakes right away – who these guys are and why they’re interesting. If I had read that article before seeing the film, there would’ve been no question in my mind as to why we were delving so deeply into the childhoods and career arc of these charming black dudes from Detroit, who cut up and laugh at their own jokes so much that it becomes contagious, even if the initial joke itself wasn’t all that funny. The band brothers’ older brother Ernest laughs so much and so often that I’m pretty sure he was actually the basis for Dr. Hibbert on The Simpsons. As it was, I had faith, but the gratification in ABCD was so delayed that a few times I worried. Man, is this just going to be a documentary about a guy’s long, slow decent into madness and obscurity, all because he refused to compromise on his band name?
That would’ve been… dark. But perhaps informative in its own way. The other eternal question for all non-fiction creators is “why are you telling me this?” If you’re not a Death virgin – and a lot of the cool people aren’t, judging by the interviews with Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, and all the coolest of the cool obscure vinyl collectors*, including one guy who seems so jaded that he might literally die – that question never comes into play. For me, it did, a lot. But when it finally got addressed, the answer was so thunderous, it knocked me on my ass so hard I left a skid mark on the theater floor. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say, I really need to stop seeing these tear-jerking documentaries when I’m hungover and my defenses are down.
A Band Called Death not only re-writes punk history (God, is there any way to say that without sounding like a hopelessly pretentious poser?), it tells a multi-generational story of heartbreak, disappointment, and redemption. It explores the indie record collector’s never-ending search for artistic authenticity at its most absurd, but also at its most redemptive. For some, finding that coolest, most obscure, original record might just be a way to seem cool and peacock for your jagoff buddies with their lopsided haircuts. But for someone out there, you finding it might be life or death.
Is A Band Called Death a good story well told? I’m on the fence. But it’s sure as hell a good story.
*And also Elijah Wood, for some reason, yet again photographed with his shirt buttoned all the way to the top. That creepy little wood nymph weirds me the hell out. Something about him makes me want to chase him out of the room with a dust pan.
Opens in theaters and on VOD this summer.