** (out of four)
As with “Searching For Sugar Man,” last year’s documentary about the decades-late revival of under-appreciated Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez, “A Band Called Death” serves as a platform for songs that most viewers will hear and say, “How in the world did anyone not think this was really good right away?”
Except unlike Rodriguez and “Sugar Man,” “Death” doesn’t chronicle an influential artist who was forgotten and was totally oblivious to the impact he had. Rather, Death was a mid-’70s punk band far more notable for its identity and material (and name) than its impact. Well before anyone was spit on at a punk show, brothers and Jehovah’s Witnesses David, Dannis and Bobby Hackney cranked out seven songs of excellent, the Who-influenced garage punk that mostly never saw the light of day. The group’s members happen to be black, worth mentioning because of the minimal African-American representation in the rock world at that time and even now. At one point Death had a chance at a record deal with Columbia Records exec Clive Davis but turned it down when David refused to change the band name.
David clearly was the talent behind the group, but his years of personal problems and death in 2000 results in him factoring into this doc largely as a cherished memory for his siblings and nephews who carry on their family’s musical legacy. It’s great that Chicago-based label Drag City reissued Death’s material in 2009 after record collectors sparked newfound interest in songs that hardly anyone knew existed. Yet just because Questlove and Kid Rock and Elijah Wood (who apparently is a record company CEO) rave about how much they like a band doesn’t mean a documentary needs to fill 90 minutes with mundane details of Death’s early days or obvious notes about the name being a road block (no kidding).
Death is far from the only band to ever have neighbors yell for them to turn it down, and you’ll want to turn off constant interview footage in which the band members and their family laugh after everything they say.
I’m happy to hear Death, but the incessant, unrewarding cackling that accompanies it I could do without.
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