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By 1975, many acts had walked through the doors of Don Davis's Groovesville Productions offices in Detroit. None of them were quite like this, a band of three related-by-blood African-American brothers who played louder, faster, and weirder than anything anyone in the city that gave birth to Motown had ever seen. They were called Death, and they were—as the New York Times article that more or less announced them to the world more than 30 years after they'd played their last note together put it—punk before punk was punk.
A band of black brothers inventing punk in Detroit only to be discovered three decades after the fact? It sounds, as Henry Rollins says in the opening of a new film about the band's moving, hard-to-believe journey, "like a movie." And so it is. A Band Called Death (Drafthouse Films), out this week, is a beautiful tale of life, love, music, and family, of things not working out but also working out just as predicted.
In it, the brothers Hackney—David, Dannis, and Bobby—watch the Beatles on TV, and become enthralled. They start making music, first naturally mimicking the Motown sound swirling all around them in a band called Rock Fire Funk Express. But the Who hit town and split their minds wide open, especially brother David's, the guitarist, lyricist, and chief architect of the band's sound and aesthetic. Now he wants to play chords like Pete Townshend, and solo like Jimi Hendrix.
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The three practice in an upstairs room of the house from 3 to 6 p.m. every day on equipment they are only able to afford after a settlement from their mother's car accident. No one—neighbors, family, friends—appreciates the racket, this "white boy music" coming from the house. But the more everyone complains, the more steadfast the brothers become. They channel the anger into the songs.
Sons of a preacher, they walk the word. One of the biggest tenets in the Hackney house is to always have your brother's back. And so Bobby and Dannis abide by David's weird vision for their band, even though they don't fully understand it.
The Hackney patriarch dies, bringing the family closer. David emerges with a epiphany: The band will be called Death.
Everyone who hears them is either floored or flummoxed, and the rejection letters start coming from major label executives—either of the "we don't get it" or the "we get it, but the name's gotta change" variety. One of the biggest names in the latter camp was Clive Davis, who offered the group a $20,000 contract (quite a sum in 1970s Detroit) to lose the name and sign on the dotted line.
David did what many over the years have no doubt wanted to but didn't have the courage: He told Clive to go to hell.
Dannis and Bobby, though angry, were Hackneys. They had their brother's back.
If you've read the Times article you know what happens next. If you haven't, giving away the twists and turns the band's story takes would be a disservice. A Band Called Death directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino string the story along nicely through interviews with Dannis and Bobby and the extended Hackney family. David, now deceased, is represented through audiotapes and handwritten diaries, his vision of Death scrapbooked together by his widow, surviving brothers, and nephews. He'd always predicted Death wouldn't get the recognition they were due until after he was gone, and A Band Called Death is a worthy vehicle for showing how that recognition came to be.
The movie packs quite an emotional and bittersweet wallop along the way, as Dannis and Bobby start to see their dead brother's vision for Death understood by more and more people the world over.
Along the way, new fans and converts—Questlove, Alice Cooper, Rollins, Kid Rock, Joey Ramone's brother Mickey Leigh, Elijah Wood (because of course)—attempt to properly contextualize the band, etching out where it belongs historically and describing, as best they can, this most visceral, hair-blown-back wild ride that is the sound of Death. "One day people are going to come looking for this music," David told his brothers long after the group broke up. A Band Called Death spells out—yells out—why that is.
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