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Last year’s Academy Award-winning documentary, “Searching for Sugarman,” tells the best kind of story—one where an artist receives deserved recognition after years of obscurity. It assures us that true talent doesn’t always go unrewarded, and sometimes a small work of art becomes a profound symbol in the lives of others. Art doesn’t belong to the artist, but to the audience, and the audience will keep things alive far longer than one might expect. In similar fashion, “A Band Called Death” tells the story of a family rock band that didn’t make it and went their separate ways until someone found a copy of a long-forgotten album and introduced it to a new generation. A story of family and failure, of music and mania, “A Band Called Death” is a film that reminds us that the past is closer than expected and that our parents were once a lot more interesting. It’s the story of three brothers, bound together in music, inscribed forever in a spiral groove of vinyl, waiting to be found.
There are likely a lot of dust-covered master tapes buried in attics across the country. Most of them should probably stay there. When I was 17 or 18, my high school rock band recorded ten original songs in a basement and had the audacity to charge people for the result. The songs were miserable, and hopefully my children will never be subjected to them. The children of Bobby and Dannis Hackney had a different experience. I’m sure they never considered their parents to be innovators. But in the ’70s, a few years before The Ramones, Bobby and Dannis, along with their brother David, started a stripped-down rock and roll band in the middle of the Detroit R&B scene. Dubbed “protopunk,” Death was inspired by Alice Cooper and The Who. The boys didn’t possess the angry, confrontational stage presence that pervades most punk rock music. While their lyrics had a certain anti-establishment tone to them, the band itself just wanted to play loud rock and roll for whoever would listen. Their name proved to be a sticking point, one that kept them from a record contract, and kept them from achieving even a modest amount of success. The group split up and lived their lives. Lead guitarist David passed away in 2000 from lung cancer, still believing that his music would someday find an audience.
Enter the label-obsessed world of the vinyl record collector. For collectors, the more obscure the label, the better the find. It doesn’t get much more obscure than Tryangle, the self-founded label of Death that dropped a 500-copy single hoping to drum up radio airplay. One of these singles found its way into the hands of a collector, who passed it around to other collectors, and before long the music began making appearances at underground parties. At one of these parties, Bobby Hackney Jr. heard his father’s voice singing. The family connection between father and son is where the documentary really shines. The first part of the film lags a little, simply because there is little documentation of Death’s early existence. With only two surviving members, it’s harder to get a full account of events and decisions, because Bobby and Dannis are forced to speak for their brother. But the re-emergence of the music due to the love and devotion of two talented sons makes the film a rewarding experience.
Part of the appeal of time travel is the chance to see the past unfiltered. When Marty McFly travels back to 1955 to experience his parents without the pretense of authority, we can identify with the character because we are so curious about our own ancestry. Different versions of us exist at many points in time, but those people seem mysterious and unreachable. Doc Brown may use a flux capacitor and a DeLorean to physically break down those barriers, but the past is still accessible in other ways, ways that don’t require 1.21 jigawatts and a Mr. Fusion. Sometimes the past is stored safely in a dimly lit attic in Detroit. “A Band Called Death” shows the audience the importance of coincidence, history, and family.