More than one review, not to mention promotional materials wired with easy hooks, take note of an intriguing connection between two fairly recent music documentaries that played at festivals last year. Oscar-winner “Searching for Sugar Man,” which involves the rediscovery of long-forgotten folk musician Sixto Rodriguez, mirrors the premise of “A Band Called Death,” about an underappreciated African American proto-punk group resurrected by its members’ offspring, which opens this week.
The parallels are pretty substantial: Both movies involve Detroit-based musicians retroactively appreciated as visionaries in their respective musical genres during their early days, the mid-to-late seventies. But while “A Band Called Death” has received considerably less attention and acclaim in the time leading up to its release, directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino arguably recount a more eventful saga.
Presented like a detective yarn, “Sugar Man” eventually turns into a comeback story, with Rodriguez discovering his massive fan base in South African and enjoying a level of rock stardom he never received before. Death never got that chance: Musicians and brothers Bobby Hackney, Sr. and Dannis Hackney, along with Bobbie Duncan, operated under the guidance of frontman and fellow Hackney brother David, but their project dissolved in the eighties as they went their separate ways. David’s untimely passing a few years later seemed to bury memories of the project for good, with the 1974 demo tape of the group’s rowdy sessions consigned to a dusty attic.
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Viewed in light of the music’s groundbreaking qualities, the lack of appreciation for Death during its initial efforts carries more than the whiff of a missed opportunity. It’s impossible not to imagine how the group could have impacted the trajectory of popular music, especially because they came so close to doing just that.
Death’s consolidation of The Who’s raucous energy, Hendrix-like distorted riffs and speedy tempos that borrowed from The Stooges but anticipated The Ramones by several years — not to mention the progressive connotations of young black musicians pushing beyond the restrictions of Motown clichés — practically demands the attention they nearly received. As the surviving members explain for the camera, Clive Davis offered the group a decent album deal if they would agree to change the unmarketable name, but David’s uncompromising outlook for the band’s philosophy (the Hackneys’ father died suddenly in their youth, and they took the name to face the nature of mortality head-on) led him to turn the offer down. Unlike Rodriguez, who released two ill-received albums before sinking into obscurity, Death never even took a shot at mainstream appreciation.
In a moment of sheer serendipity, Bobby’s grown children discovered Death’s music when a handful of tracks began circulating the underground music scene a few years ago. While forming their own band Rough Francis, the younger Hackneys also helped bring Death the visibility it never received as other interested parties aided in the reissuing of Death’s album by Drag City Records last year. On a fundamental level, this stunning development catapults the air of triumph in “A Band Called Death” well beyond that of “Sugar Man.” Compared to Death, Rodriguez developed a substantial following that later got a second boost, while Death was literally brought back from an early grave.
As filmmaking, neither film contains particularly groundbreaking qualities, although “Sugar Man” has a shrewder structure. Director Malik Bendjelloul cleverly builds his story around the mystery of Rodriguez’ disappearance and rumors of his alleged suicide before discovering the man living comfortably with his family off the grid. That discovery is a crucial ingredient of the narrative for both misinformed fans and viewers of the story as Bendjelloul presents it. “A Band Called Death” lacks the thrill of mystery but makes up for it with pathos.
In its second hour, after the solemn tale of Death’s failure reaches its darkest point, the validation of the group’s efforts delivers a serious emotional punch. In the tear-jerker of a finale, the surviving Hackneys’ lasting humility and subservience to their late brother’s ideals transform “A Band Called Death” from pure music history overview to a snapshot of family bonds that run deep. Observing that David’s impact continues to reverberate long after his passing, Bobby says, “We are the unwitting stars of his movie.” Of course, they’re the stars of this one, too, and the journey’s transformative power is infectious. By the end, “A Band Called Death” doesn’t just uncover a new chapter in punk history. It lets you experience it.
Criticwire grade: B+