Thirty-four years after they released their first and only single, a group of African American brothers from Detroit returned to the streets where they started. At the Magic Stick, a club connected to the city’s Majestic Theater — a legendary venue where popular myth claims Harry Houdini performed his final act on stage — Bobby and Dennis Hackney ran through a list of songs they wrote as teenagers along with their deceased brother David, a poster of whom hangs in the wings, under the name Death. The brothers are older now, a bit softer in the middle, but the hard edge of the music remains. The audience, full of kids in their 20s, stare in reverence at a band reborn. The scene sets the mood for “A Band Called Death,” a classic rock ’n’ roll comeback story told with great passion and insight by filmmakers Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett, currently playing in theaters across the country and on demand.
During that three-decade-plus period in the dark, Death wasn’t much more than a blip in the personal histories of the three brothers. The Hackney boys, raised on the swagger of the Beatles and the bluster of The Who, started the band, under the encouragement of their parents, in their bedroom. They were obnoxious, annoying the neighbors who frequently called the cops on the trio, but moved quickly, gaining local support and attention. After a Clive Davis-funded recording session, where the music-industry mogul suggested they change their name to something more commercially palatable (they refused), the band broke up in 1977. The brothers moved to Vermont, tried their hand at religious rock, and ultimately split for good a few years later. David moved back to Detroit, Bobby and Dennis joined a reggae band, marriages and children happened in the interim, and Death become nothing more than a demo tape, a blown opportunity regulated to the dustbin of history.
There has been a glut of rock ’n’ roll underdog documentaries in recent years, but what separates “A Band Called Death” from, say, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” or “Searching for Sugarman” is that the film is only nominally about music. It has to do with family, the unbreakable bonds between siblings, and perseverance. Death only recorded a handful of songs, and even though the recordings are culturally significant — they were recorded the same year punk bands started playing at New York’s famed CBGB’s — their output is minimal. The story is less about the existence of the band and more about the discovery, years later by the members’ children, of their hidden family history.
This is not to diminish the music in any way. The songs the Hackney brothers recorded are still fresh today, short and deceptively simple blasts of teenage aggression that are a joy to listen to. But great songs don’t make a great movie, and “A Band Called Death” understands this. Music is only the catalyst to tell a human story, and one that’s worth our time.