'A Band Called Death': A rockin' narrative
By Kate Erbland, Special to MSN Movies
Proudly a part of the ranks of pioneering musical acts that few people have ever heard of (or, more precisely, never heard) until some weird twist of sonic fate, the band known as Death gets a well-deserved love letter in Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett's debut documentary, appropriately titled "A Band Called Death." A well-researched and affectionately made film, "A Band Called Death" is a must-watch for fans of punk music, vinyl record wonks, or even those interested in the price of a visionary entertainment dream.
Formed in the 1970s in a still-bustling Detroit, the band (called Death) was the pet project of an unlikely band of actual brothers -- the Hackneys, three nice boys from a large religious family (their father, Earl Hackney, was a preacher) -- who shied away from creating a Motown sound, despite growing up during the genre's heyday. Influenced by the wide-ranging tastes of their musical parents, the Hackney boys (Bobby, Dannis, and David) drew inspiration from the sorts of acts most people would describe as (and which their own family even terms) "white boy music," including the Beatles, the Who and Alice Cooper. All talented and dedicated musicians, the Hackney boys eventually honed their own sound into what's now called proto-punk, putting them in a class with bands like the Velvet Underground, T. Rex, Big Star and David Bowie.
Death were, by all accounts, ahead of their time, and, as a fan refers to them in the film, they were also "the unknown soldiers of rock," musicians who should have gone much further than they did, and a band that was almost lost to the ravages of time itself.
"A Band Called Death" is admirably comprehensive: The heavy involvement by three generations of the Hackney family easily ensures that no other feature made about Death could possibly be as informative and packed with material of both the personal and the performance variety. Yet, seemingly in service to keeping the film clipping along in an easily digestible and understandable way, "A Band Called Death" sticks to an uninspired and frequently boring linear style of storytelling. While the film opens with some quick reflections by fans of the band, it soon gives way to a variety of talking heads (mainly the Hackney brothers themselves), guiding us along the timeline of Death.
It's this method of storytelling that also fractures the film around its second act, when the band's surprising (and decades-in-the-making) revival cues up, and the focus of the film switches from the Hackney brothers and their family sharing very personal stories to recognizable stars like Henry Rollins, Alice Cooper and Elijah Wood talking about how much they love the band. Such a talking head change-up is intense enough, but after spending over an hour getting deep into the Hackney hearts, it's almost enough to give the audience whiplash.
There is, however, the looming specter of David, the band's youngest member and the one whose vision and ambition both crafted the band's style and sound and threatened their very chances at success, to keep things compelling. Audiences don't need to know much about David and his post-Death life to tap into clues about his current status while the rest of his family speaks about him, at length and with a wistful affection. A more finely tuned documentary would likely build its drama around the missing David, but "A Band Called Death" only navigates it as one piece of a larger puzzle, removing mystery and drama from an otherwise rudimentary (but rocking) narrative.
Kate Erbland is a contributing writer for MSN Movies, a critic for Boxoffice magazine and an associate editor for Film School Rejects. She has been writing about movies since 2008, but has been thinking about movies for far longer. She lives in New York City.