2013 a stellar year for music films

As a longtime connoisseur of all things musical and an intermittent though enthusiastic cinephile, I was nearly overwhelmed with the quality and abundance of choice viewing material in 2013. From documentaries on bands and sound studios both famous and obscure to fictional portrayals of music scenes of the past, the year offered an embarrassment of riches for anyone curious about the behind the scenes stories and details of life in the music business.

While I could write column length articles on any number of music-related films from 2013, I’ll instead focus on my favorite.

“A Band Called Death” is a documentary that chronicles the rise and collapse of the obscure but groundbreaking ’70s band Death. The film movingly captures the family bond between brothers David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney, the Detroit natives who formed the band after seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Death’s music was fast, loud and abrasive, with lyrics that addressed the political turmoil of the era. It was the last thing most people wanted to hear from three African-American brothers in Motown-era Detroit, where their sound was derided as “white boys music.”

As remarkable as their sound was—and it clearly presaged hardcore punk rock like Bad Brains and Black Flag—what truly sets Death’s story apart from hundreds of other also-ran acts of the day is the uncompromising creative heart of David Hackney, the band’s guiding spirit.

Offered a record contract by major label Arista Records under the condition that the band change its name, David turned it down flat, unwilling to trade his original vision of the group for a chance at commercial and financial success.

That decision essentially spelled the end for Death, with the brothers parting ways to work on separate music projects over the course of several decades. For 35 years the master tapes of the band’s recordings sat in an attic, forgotten by nearly everyone except David, who shortly before he passed away in 2000 from lung cancer prophesied that Death’s music would be rediscovered and appreciated by a new generation of listeners.

Against all common sense and logic, the fulfillment of that prophecy began in 2008, when the sons of Bobby Hackney—Julian, Urian, and Bobby Jr.—started a band called Rough Francis, covering the songs of Death after finding the old recordings in their parents’ attic.

In 2009, the label Drag City Records released all seven Death songs from their 1974 United Sound sessions under the title “For the Whole World to See.”

Since the release of the documentary last year, the surviving brothers, accompanied by the members of Rough Francis, have performed the band’s music for appreciative audiences across the globe.

Whatever your opinion of Death’s songs, the band’s story reaches beyond musical genres and delves deep into the heart of what it means to be an artist in an industry that values conformity and obedience over creativity and intransigence.
It also underscores the importance of the ties that bind families together. Throughout the documentary the surviving brothers, Dannis and Bobby, act as guides through the band’s history, beginning in the brothers’ bedroom at their parent’s house where they first practiced and continuing on to the local studio where they laid down the tracks that would form the basis of their debut album three and a half decades later.

Time and again the brothers credit their parents with the support and belief that allowed them to survive years of career neglect and financial struggle.

One of the final scenes of the movie shows Dannis and Bobby Hackney in the audience of a club, listening as their sons pound out the songs that they put together with their sad, driven sibling a lifetime ago.

The joy in their faces, and the tears they make no attempt to hide, are proof enough of the value and truth of the experience that “A Band Called Death” captures loudly, brilliantly.


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