Pop musicians who have been rediscovered or resurrected after years of obscurity have, for some reason, inspired a mini-genre among documentary filmmakers of late. The films include “The Punk Singer” (2013) about riot grrrl rocker Kathleen Hanna; “Hit So Hard” (2011), about Hole drummer and drug casualty Patty Schemel; “Last Days Here” (2011) and “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” (2008), two tales about heavy metal survivors; and the upbeat, Oscar-winning “Searching for Sugar Man.” Joining them is Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s “A Band Called Death,” which, its daunting title notwithstanding, might be the sunniest and most family-friendly of them all.
In 1971 the three Hackney brothers from Detroit — Bobby, Dannis, and David — formed what was no doubt the first black punk band. In fact, it may have been the first punk band, period. Though they called themselves Death, in terms of family values they had more in common with the Cowsills than the Sex Pistols. But when it came to music, they were savage and revolutionary and purely themselves.
More of that music might have helped inject into the film some of the assaultive, transgressive energy associated with punk, but the directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett instead content themselves with an easy-listening, Ken Burns style, consisting of the usual talking heads (sadly, not the great David Byrne band) and archival photos and footage. Fortunately, Bobby and Dannis, the surviving brothers, prove genial company. They nostalgically reminisce, talking about being the sons of a Baptist preacher who was not the fire-and-brimstone kind, but one who encouraged their talents, insisting, for example, that they watch the Beatles on TV. That’s when the brothers decided to dedicate their lives to rock ’n’ roll. Or rather, that’s when David decided for them. Indeed, though absent, David makes a bigger impression than his surviving siblings, who refer to him with affection, sorrow, and awe.
He provided the band with its ethos, and it was not the traditional punk attitude of anger and nihilism, but an eccentric spirituality. He insisted on the name Death, but meant it in a good way, in the Christian sense of a transition to better things. More important, he anchored the mysticism with his consummate musicianship. As lead guitarist he emulated the styles of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend, but as songwriter he was in a world of his own, creating a sound that would amaze musicians, critics, and fans over three decades years later.
So what happened? David was maybe a little too hung up with Death, at least as the name of the band. In the mid-’70s they were on the verge of making it, with impresario Clive Davis offering them a contract and $20,000. The only condition was they had to change the name. David refused, and his brothers reluctantly went along, because nothing was more important than “backing up your brother.”
Decades passed, the band dispersed, and David died, alcoholic and heartbroken but never doubting his single-minded determination, or his dream of Death. His faith proved prophetic, abetted by the Internet and the subculture of connoisseurs of obscure recordings. In the end Death triumphs, but its allure and obsession remain a mystery.