Friday, July 12, 2013

A Band Called Death

2012, US, directed by Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett

Two parts family portrait, one part fascinating glimpse of musical history, with a dash of insight into the world of the hardcore record collector, the documentary takes us back to Detroit in the early 1970s, where a trio of brothers decides to start a hardcore rock band in deeply unpromising circumstances. The driving force behind the band was the now-deceased David Hackney, who came up with the Death's concept and musical direction, and who refused to compromise even when success seemed to hinge on just that. Despite his death in 2000, David is a huge presence, both because of the wealth of archival material -- we get to hear his voice and read his words -- and because his brothers never attempt to steal the spotlight from him.

The film starts out as a portrait of an unusually close-knit group of collaborators, but as the story unspools Death's status as far more than a footnote in musical history starts to assert itself. Some of the celebrity talking heads are a little bland, there principally for their fame rather than their insights, but others make fine contributions, while Jello Biafra has a priceless scene. The documentary style is a little distracting at times, manipulating family photos in a rather repetitive stylistic gesture, but the raw material ultimately overwhelms these fairly minor niggles, and the story of how the music itself was re-discovered is quite remarkable.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States