At the Alamo: A Band Called Death, A Band of Brothers
In the end, A Band Called Death is less about its namesake or even about the music at all; it is the journey of three brothers bound by love and driven by faith. The sounds that they made together upstairs in a small house in Detroit in 1974, while revolutionary, take a back seat to the story of David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney, brothers.
Encouraged by their parents, the youngest three Hackney brothers grew up like so many American teenagers since the birth of rock and roll, listening to a wide spectrum of popular music from folk to funk. But even in the heart of Motown, it was ultimately bands like The Who and The Beatles that would speak to David and his brothers.
With David as the de facto leader, the three would plot an unlikely and ultimately unnoticed course through American music history. Much to the chagrin of neighbors, upstairs in an extra bedroom the trio of teenagers blended funk, Motown and psychedelia into a form of proto-punk rock that would remain almost completely unexplored -- even by some of punk's greatest innovators -- until Bad Brains released their debut some eight years later.
To this day, their music stands the test of time, both echoing the Who and MC5 while acting as a nearly direct precursor to more modern bands like Refused.
While keenly integrated into the film, Death's music takes a backseat to the journey of the men who created it. Foremost in that creation stands David Hackney, whose visionary talent would not come without cost. His uncompromising approach to music, which extended to his concept for the band itself, would see the band shop its music all over Detroit to no avail. Under the inflammatory banner of Death, the Hackney brothers would spend the next decade finding rejection at nearly every turn.
Years of rejection took their toll and eventually the three would walk away from Death altogether. In the film, we see the separate journeys the three take to find themselves 20 years removed from the band Death. Dannis and Bobby would continue their music career in a reggae band, working regular jobs and raising families in Burlington, Vermont.
David, the band's prime creative force, would spend that interim mired in his own genius, clearly haunted by his early failure. In 2000, after years of substance abuse, David handed over the band's original 1975 master tapes to his brothers with the message: "Keep them in a safe place. Some day the world will come looking."
David would not live to see his prophetic words come true, and the eventual discovery of his band is a story as unbelievable as it is unlikely, bringing them the fame and recognition that was every bit as deserved when debut album For the Whole World to See was originally recorded in 1975. The theme of family and brotherhood is explored once again with the next generation of Hackneys, themselves musicians, and the end result -- while perhaps a bit too polished and neatly wrapped in its retelling--is an absolutely gut-wrenching story that sounds straight out of a Cameron Crowe film.
As the film concludes -- and if listening to his music had not already convinced you -- you cannot help but feel that maybe David really did have the ability to see beyond what you or I see in this world. His music, his perceptions, his concept and his band, Death, have now come full circle. Sparked by one death, torn apart by another and resurgent a full generation later, the entire story is even more improbable than three black kids from Detroit playing rock and roll in a band called Death.
A Band Called Death is screening now at Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park through Wednesday, July 10. For the Whole World to See -- which Rocks Off! counts among our very favorite albums of all time -- has been re-issued by Drag City Records and is available in stores now.
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