Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols, or even the Ramones there was a band called Death. Three teenage brothers in the early ‘70s formed a band in their spare bedroom. They began playing a few local gigs and even pressed a single in the hopes of getting signed. But this was the era of Motown and emerging disco. Record companies found Death’s music—and band name—too intimidating. The group was never given a fair shot, disbanding before they even completed one album. Equal parts electrifying rockumentary and epic family love story, A Band Called Death chronicles the incredible fairy-tale journey of what happened almost three decades later, when a dusty 1974 demo tape made its way out of the attic and found an audience several generations younger. Playing music impossibly ahead of its time, Death is now being credited as the first Black punk band and are finally receiving their long overdue recognition as true rock pioneers.
During the 1970s in America, the narrative of African-American history was largely expressed through the musical art forms of R&B, soul, and funk. While the influence of the blues on the contemporary Rock & Roll music of the time was undeniable and widely cited, outside the contributions of Jimi Hendrix, African-American rock bands were virtually nonexistent. With R&B, soul and funk gradually transitioning into the sounds of disco, non-white teens looking to identify with an alternative to mainstream rock were hard pressed to find one. Dissatisfied with the excessive lifestyles and narcissistic personalities of big arena rock bands, young people turned internally for inspiration by creating their own “do-it-yourself” bands. Fueled by their angst towards the political leadership aligned with 1950s conservatism as well as Rock & Roll lyrics perceived as being disconnected from everyday reality, punk rock was formed. Bands such as The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Ramones spewed political discontent and indifference to the establishment, and were characterized by a defiant working class identity, primarily among young white men. In the early 1980s, as punk grew in scope and influence so did the involvement of Black and Latino youth. By then, bands such as Bad Brains and Suicidal Tendencies absorbed the rambunctious energy of punk, infusing a much needed jolt of diversity into its ranks.
A Band Called Death chronicles the journey of three brothers who broke the musical mold by pioneering the rebellious spirit of punk. Although their unique sound pre-dated the UK punk scene by four years, they were entirely void of the community support. Against the backdrop of early 1970’s Detroit, where the local Black experience was framed by Motown’s soul and R&B, the Hackney brothers chose a different route of expression. Influenced by the musicianship and onstage theatrics of The Who and Alice Cooper, famous Rock & Roll bands of the era, Death expanded the horizons for the Black music experience and sound. Fostered by a strong sibling bond and parents who encouraged their unconventional passions, the brothers edged close to fame, narrowly missing it due to strong personal convictions of originality, spirituality and unique artistic truth.
The film’s heart lives in the depiction of the family’s rootedness in unconditional love, multi-generational legacy and commitment to personal truth. While Black identity continues to be polarized - both a beacon of “cool” in youth culture and an unjustly dangerous existence as proven by recent fatal encounters between African-American youth and police - A Band Called Death offers a story that is riveting, joyful and necessary in our current landscape.