Review: 'A Band Called Death'

Chalk it up to little more than happenstance that last year’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man,” would make the festival rounds mere months before the arrival of “A Band Called Death,” as both films chronicle the triumphant re-discovery of unheralded musicians decades after their prime. A spoiler? Hardly. No one makes movies about the guys who never made it -- well, no one besides David Chase. At any rate, directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett have crafted a rousing account of the Hackney brothers, three Detroit siblings who would not only constitute the rare all-black punk band, but do so in the mid-‘70s, very nearly beating the Ramones and the Sex Pistols to the punch.

It’s heartening to learn how Bobby, Dannis and David were encouraged to be well-rounded in their musical tastes in a city where, and at a time when, many acts restricted themselves to echoing the Motown sound. As Death, these three recorded a little-heard demo in 1974, but when their steadfast integrity against changing the band’s name cost them a potential recording contract, the master tapes were stashed away in the attic and the brothers went their separate ways.

Initially, “Band” feels a bit too heavily steeped in well-intended hagiography, but between the glowing stories emphasizing David’s passion and genius in particular, his absence from the present-day interviews is keenly felt and eventually explained. The fact that the story takes a turn towards the tragic isn’t hard to see coming, but the shift in focus from a fledgling band to a grieving family, from dreams to disappointment, widens the scope beyond rock-doc routine into a potent encapsulation of the turmoil of real life. It’s not as if the filmmakers could have helped it, of course, but this move consequently ensures that the band’s climactic resurgence earns its intended emotional punch, with Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Elijah Wood and half a dozen savvy vinyl collectors testifying and tracing the course of Death into its very own afterlife.

Covino and Howlett’s work in tracking the band’s trajectory comes off as a touch more transparent and forthright than the still-heartwarming “Sugar Man” did, and in lieu of that film’s animated interludes, still images are manipulated into effectively matching the energy of the soundtrack. Indeed, everything about “Band” boasts an expectedly professional sheen and verve, and yet it’s through all that polish and hindsight that a tale of raw talent can ultimately shine.

SCORE: 8.4 / 10

"A Band Called Death" is now available on VOD and iTunes. It will arrive in theaters on June 28.