IN THE MID-'70s, a trio of African American brothers from Detroit inadvertently invented punk rock. Led by guitarist David Hackney and supported by his brothers Dannis and Bobby, they called themselves Death. A self-released 7-inch aside, Death's tracks remained virtually unheard until record collectors got a hold of them decades later. In 2009, an album of their work was given a proper release by Drag City, cementing their reputation as cult icons and one of rock history's greatest and best anomalies.
A Band Called Death does an expert job of telling their remarkable story. David died in 2000, but Dannis and Bobby narrate us through the full saga, which began in a small upstairs room in their mother's house. David was the one who insisted on the band name Death, which closed almost every door available to them at the time—not to mention they were blacks in Detroit playing rock, which was thought of as "white boy" music. Their dervish-like, mystical proto-punk didn't win them any easy fans, either. But listening to Death's '70s recordings, it's plainly apparent how great they were. Clive Davis even offered to sign them to Columbia Records if they changed their name; David turned him down.
The film does Death's music a solid, but there's a lot more to admire here. A story of brothers bound by blood as well as music, A Band Called Death gives us a look at a troubled but ultimately united family. After Death disintegrated in the late '70s, Dannis and Bobby went to Vermont and eventually started a reggae band. Meanwhile, David never wavered from his original vision, although alcoholism and cancer interfered with his grand plan. While they eventually got the admiration they deserved, Death's music and story still deserve greater recognition. A Band Called Death gives us both in the best possible way.