Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The excellent Green Room has thinking about some of the best punk rock movies.
At around the same time the late Charles Bronson was becoming a household name thanks to the massive success of Death Wish, a three-piece Detroit rock band was being told the decision to call themselves Death would cost them their career. There were other obstacles to Death finding a wider audience, chief among them the limited opportunities for a trio of African-American brothers playing punk rock well before the punk scene took shape. But in A Band Called Death, a documentary charting the band’s late-in-life rebirth, the name comes up repeatedly as a sticking point. It’s tragic that Death’s music never reached a wider audience, especially since the name that became the band’s albatross was so personal and resonant for its members. They couldn’t have a more poignant—or more punk rock—moniker.
Mark Christopher Corvino and Jeff Howlett’s absorbing documentary traces the journey of the Hackney brothers—Bobby, Dannis, and David—as they started tinkering with music as Detroit teenagers. David found a guitar in an alley, and his interest in music inspired his brothers to join him, with Dannis on drums and Bobby on bass and lead vocals. They first delved into funk, a logical choice given its adjacency to the Motown sound. But after hearing The Who, the brothers experimented with rock, eventually adopting the name Death at David’s insistence. He wanted to reclaim the term, in part as a tribute to their father, who died in an auto accident as he tried to rush an injured co-worker to the hospital. Death caught the attention of Clive Davis, who bankrolled their studio sessions only to withdraw his support when the band refused to change its name. David’s disillusionment led to the dissolution of Death in 1977, and he died of lung cancer in 2000.
A Band Called Death follows a common rock-doc arc, with the band’s music fading from view until a hardcore record collector discovers it and insists on bringing it to a wider audience. The newfound enthusiasm for the music leads Death to eventually reunite, with guitarist Bobbie Duncan playing David’s guitar parts, and they even record new music. But the film is richer than most of its ilk because it’s not just about the loss of recognition due to the band’s failure to break big. It’s about much more significant and heavy losses, the type of loss the Hackney brothers wanted their music named for.
Availability: A Band Called Death is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix and possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.