A BAND CALLED DEATH

2012; directed by Mark Corvino and Jeff Howlett; 92 mins

Rock & Roll: that’s the thing most punk rockers seem to say when the subject is broached as to what makes them punk. They almost inevitably say they just wanted to make Rock & Roll music. That’s not the only connection this film has with the great pantheon of rockumentary filmmaking, though…

Telling the story of three African American brothers from Detroit – David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney – who started making proto-punk Rock & Roll music under the name Death, seemingly unaware of the likes of MC5 or The Stooges (if there is a criticism of the film, it’s that almost no reference is made at all to the groundbreaking punk/garage music that was going on in Detroit at the time and whether the brothers knew about it). They impressed the studio suits in Detroit but it seems that whilst everyone loved the music, the band’s name was a crutch past which they could not get. David, the eldest of the three and nominal leader, refused to budge on it, seeing it as central to the fundamental principles of what the band stood for. So far, so familiar but this is not the typical story of the little band that could, in that the victory was both a long time coming and somewhat Pyrrhic.

Whilst the style of the film itself is fairly standard, with sit-down interviews recorded in front of musical instruments and celebrity fans putting in their two-penneth worth, hats off to the filmmakers for shooting as much around Detroit with the brothers and their community as they do. This gives the film much more of a sense of the realities of workaday artists. There are no huge venues except one in NY, which looks like the dullest gig of the tour.

The film‘s main crux, really, is the fight between art and commercialism and how this impacted on the brothers. Was David’s refusal to change the name responsible for the subsequent personal and professional decline or could it be that if the record label just budged slightly and allowed the name, punk rock history could’ve looked very different?

Woven throughout, is the brothers’ lifelong relationship with God and Christianity; odd for a punk band but ties up rather nicely with Greg Whiteley‘s 2005 Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane doc, New York Doll. Also, there are obvious parallels with Searching for Sugar Man, also from 2012 and definitely the more renowned and lauded rock-doc. Perhaps looking over all these is Don Letts‘ massively underrated film, Punk: Attitude, in the discussion of what punk means and what it is that defines punk. In this, it seems that it’s the drive to go against everything that society expects from you. Under the very nose of Motown, three black guys decided to imitate The Who and Alice Cooper and wound up being near-forgotten footnotes in the prehistory of one of the most important, revolutionary music movements of the 20th century.

Some know-nothings would call that stupidity or a waste of taxpayers money but hey! If ya don’t get it…!

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