Sunday, August 18, 2013

Life after Death

Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino's A Band Called Death is about so many things, but it focuses its primary resources on telling the story of Death, an early-70s, African American punk trio out of Detroit headed by the late David Hackney, a visionary musician who along with his two brothers recorded an album in 1974 that wasn't released during his lifetime.  Hackney's stubborn dedication to his own vision, music, and the band name Death became his eventual downfall in many ways. (The record company who signed them would not release the record without the name-change, and Hackney never allowed that to happen).  That over-the-top name, however, also seems to be the main reason for the band's eventual resurrection in 2008.  Hipster record collectors began stumbling upon a couple singles the band made back in the 70s at alternative record stores, and finally Death began to stir interest yet again, this time with enough zeitgeist to create a sort of mini-movement.
What is so incredible about A Band Called Death isn't really the story about the band's comeback, as much as the story of David Hackney's sad decline into obscurity, despite trying so hard to avoid it.  He passed away in 2000 from complications due to alcoholism, and the movie is a tribute to his youthful vigor and dedication to what he saw he needed to do.  His two brothers eventually gave up, and went on to front a revivalist reggae touring band, working janitorial and other kinds of jobs to get by.  Hackney never really gave up on what the idea that Death was his life, and that the band's inevitable emergence as a great punk institution was just around the corner, even (especially) when everything seemed stacked against it.  That commitment only caused him misery the last days of his life, but it also helped to create the music that will be his legacy:  intense, flagrant, crazy, beautiful rock n roll that makes the Ramones and Sex Pistols sound puny in retrospect. 
The amalgamation of all those disparate elements -- three African American brothers in 1974 creating some of the best  high-energy, fuck-you punk music while living in Motown -- makes Death a sort of anomaly that had to either self-destruct or find vengeance. 
Death did both.
This movie made me cry unlike any other I've seen this year.  It is a hyper-emotional experience.  An exhausted sadness permeates many of the scenes in which Hackney's brothers try to conjure his spirit in order to remember him exactly as he was:  a high-spirited, freaky, sweet nobody who had talent and gumption and a sense of ego that both doomed him and allowed him to see behind that doom.  While that deeply felt melancholia does infuse the movie, A Band Called Death is also incredibly life-affirming, especially in its focus on Hackney's nephews, who now front their own punk band named Rough Francis (a name they culled from Hackney's music).  And Hackney's brothers, Dannis and Bobby, take center stage at the end in a reconfiguration of Death, with his full-sized picture floating behind the stage, a makeshift rock god holding court.  While watching that neo-Death, you remember the real thing as Howlett and Covino have framed it:  three young dudes in a bedroom in their house in early 70s Detroit, rocking so loud the neighbors end up pounding on the front door.  They only get louder.  It's a joyous celebration of rebellion, as well as a way to understand that punk really isn't a movement or a style as much as a force of nature. 
By the end, Howlett and Covino have given us an epic, tragicomic bildungsroman with Bobby as the protagonist, a vital American story that somehow uplifts even while it maintains the super-punk spirit embedded in Death's creed and name.