In Issue #15 of Diabolique, there was a focus on the relationship between Rock ‘n’ Roll music and horror culture. The inherent theatricality of Rock music, as well as the primal resonation of the collective sounds within specifically Punk and Metal music, lends itself perfectly to the same psychological reactions as horror culture often extracts from an audience. Names like Charles Manson, Jim Gordon and Varg Vikernes can be associated with real life horror stories better than their actual music, as well. But horror, as with Rock ‘n’ Roll, may come with the images of the dark and aggressive, but also come with an inherent spirituality. After all, what is evil without the element of goodness to battle it? What is a spirit in unrest without the desire for a peaceful eternity? What is death without the life that precedes it?

Such thoughts are, surprisingly, one of the reasons why Death (not the Metal band) garnered it’s name, as late guitarist David Hackney is paraphrased as saying, “Death is reality.” And from that moment on, an already fascinating documentary transcends into something more spiritual and yet, simultaneously, more personal, immersing the viewer into a perception that at once gives gravity to what was formerly three young African Americans playing punk rock in a small room. By labeling the band “Death”, David unintentionally brought a force of fear that would follow the band like a dark cloud, not only intimidating those who were opposed to the band’s music and skin color, but also those who loved the band and could not gamble on a name so bleak and terse. But, by the end of A Band Called Death, out this weekend on Video-On-Demand from Drafthouse Pictures, the name is not much more than a MacGuffin; a catalyst by which the story begins, dies and begins again, birthed out of a struggle to be heard and understood.

But all vague notions aside, there is still much to be said about A Band Called Death in concrete terms. First off, the film, in any light, is a wondrous experience, one likely to enlighten you to new music but also a time and place often experienced through a different lens. The plight of the punk band, seen most often through the predominantly white hardcore movement or the various Sex Pistols pseudo-documentaries, is experienced by three African American brothers (David, Bobby and Dannis), who grew up as influenced by Motown and The Beatles as they were Alice Cooper and The Who. The music of Death is powerful, unique and minimalist, yet it’s more so what the band does not do that makes them so unique. Rarely do we see Death’s original lineup perform in the film, and the brothers, in particular David, refusal to compromise forever alters the course of the band and his family.

As a documentary, A Band Called Death is electric. From the opening guest interviews, featuring such rock and roll icons as Alice Cooper and Henry Rollins to upcoming Maniac star Elijah Wood, to the introduction to the band itself, the documentary provides a “sink or swim” mentality, throwing the audience into a frenzy of the bands music, imagery and legacy, allowing the viewers to piece together the mental puzzle at the pace they choose to provide. However, A Band Called Death benefits the most from having a real life story that’s unpredictable as it is tragic and haunting. Family turmoil, strange premonitions and overwhelming adversity mar the story of A Band Called Death, but also provide a strong, hopeful outlook about passion, recognition and love once the picture becomes clearer. Furthermore, directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino offer an incredibly intimate portrait of the brothers, not only as a band, but as good-minded, funny, down-to-earth human beings and siblings, allowing any success or heartbreak in their path to resonate much more powerfully.


The Hackney Brothers

The Hackney Brothers

A Band Called Death is not the perfect documentary, by any means. Towards the late second act, there are certain pacing issues, and rarely are you given the perspective of those who stood in the way of the band, albeit that may be an issue of time passed and unavailable resources rather than conscious indifference. Equally problematic is the films misdirection, occasionally focusing on the weaker of two simultaneous stories for dramatic effect. However, the issues within A Band Called Death are minor annoyances at best, paled in comparison by the onslaught of music, emotion and spiritual empowerment on display.

One of the most fascinating elements about A Band Called Death is the psychological function of the documentary itself. There’s no trying to decipher the meaning of punk rock, nor is the film trying to assign Death a martyr’s position of a talent that disappeared, allowing others to succeed in its wake. If anything, A Band Called Death is incredibly reaffirming, bringing to light often lightheartedly the opposition that the band faced, whether it be record executives who despised the name “Death” or their own neighbors, reluctant to accept such loud, volatile music in a time and place that was home to Motown, and then showing how little the band cared in the bigger picture. To the Hackney brothers, Death was more than something that can be shrugged off, and one can tell that no protest could embody that message better than the music itself.

A Band Called Death is not a game-changing documentary, but the balance between brevity and seriousness makes the film just as human as the subjects at hand, and that’s a feat unto itself. The documentary raises questions about the nature of spirituality and God, the breaking point of kinship, and the persistence of good music. In an age where any and all music is being documented on digital devices, Death has been given a second life, something A Band Called Death hopes to reinstate for a whole new generation of uninitiated fans. And even though the appeal of this documentary may be more subjective than objective, it’s undeniable that A Band Called Death is immersive, touching and, yes, punk rock at its most sublime.

– By Ken W. Hanley

A Band Called Death is available now on Video-On-Demand. The film will be released theatrically by Drafthouse Pictures on June 28th. For more information on how/where to rent the film, please visit https://drafthousefilms.com/film/a-band-called-death.