The story of A Band Called Death

New music documentaries are often among the highlights of the New Zealand International Film Festival; last year's Searching For Sugar Man being an obvious example. This year's must-see music documentary is A Band Called Death. I've seen the film - it manages that rare feat of being a human interest story, a family drama, and a plug for a kick-ass rock'n'roll band. In this case a band you might not have heard about - or perhaps you've heard the name but you didn't know any of the music.

I caught up with A Band Called Death's directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett to hear some of the story behind the making of the film.

A Band Called Death tells the story of the Hackney brothers, Bobby, Dennis and David, three African American siblings who, influenced by The Who and Alice Cooper and charged up on their own type of garage rock, a proto-punk music that never achieved fame in its short lifespan, created music that wows people on first hearing all these years later.

Death were equal parts Bad Brains and Ramones, but before either of those bands had released any music. The hook in the story of this unheard-in-its-time band is that you hear the music today and it's almost hard to believe they missed their window. In 2009 the Drag City label released the band's demo as a seven-track CD, For The Whole World To See (you can listen to the whole album here). Word started to spread.

For Howlett and Covino the notion of "documentary gold" was obvious. A New York Times article provided some back-story, the newly released 35-year-old album excited punk and hardcore and garage music fans and collectors and Howlett's aim was to make a 20-minute documentary about the band.

"I knew the Hackney brothers for like 20 years", Howlett tells me on a shared called with Covino.

"But I didn't know them as Death, I knew them under their reggae-band guise, Lambsbread [Bobby and Dennis performed as Lambsbread, and before that Death had morphed into a gospel band called The 4th Movement].

"And I knew Bobby Jr and had seen his band Rough Francis - and then it was a revelation to hear this music they were covering, to hear these songs by this band Death.

"I had no idea until that point that these guys I knew had made this other music. I was blown away."

A eureka moment for the filmmaker and photographer.

Howlett grew up a fan of Minor Threat and Black Flag and was tapped into "that whole 1980s punk and hardcore scene". So the music of Death was instantly "right in there; I mean straight up we're talking Top 10 of all time kinda thing", he says with a chuckle; still so aware that it was remarkable for him to not only find Death's music, and to have made a film about it, but to have known the guys who made the music - and they'd never so much as given a hint that before they were a reggae band, before they were a gospel band, they had toiled away making so-sure-of-itself DIY punk polemic.

Howlett put in a call to fellow documentarian Covino who was working on his own project at the time though had "hit a wall" both creatively and financially. Covino wasn't instantly sure he could help. But then he read the New York Times article and heard the song, Keep On Knocking. He tells me he was "floored" by the story he read, he knew there was something to be captured on film. And "as soon as I heard Keep On Knocking I was hooked".

A Band Called Death took three years to make, another year in post-production, editing and now the film heads out on its international journey. It's been well received in America and New Zealand is among the first of the international territories to see and hear this story of Death.

"We're so excited", Covino enthuses, Howlett chimes in to agree.

"Usually we attend the screenings - where we can. But it just didn't work out this time, but we'd love to come to New Zealand, we were hoping we could make that happen. But maybe we'll get there some other time."

The film will go on to Europe, it's currently being sold in to the festival circuit there.

"The response has been amazing" Covino says.

"And it's something we're really proud of. I mean here we are a year into promoting this thing".

The pair laughs at the hundreds of interviews they have done. Saying they still enjoy watching the film, have sat through it every time before any of the Q&A sessions and festival events they've attended. They're still psyched by the music too. Death - the new version of the band - is out on the road again and the documentary A Band Called Death is the best business card the group could hope for.

"The only thing that's come up for us a couple of times", Covino says with a slight chuckle, "is people being upset by the labelling, we've had some serious music fans write to us saying they're disgusted at the labelling of Death as a punk band".

Howlett interjects, "we weren't trying to say that they were first at anything, more forgotten, unknown, this is a story of some guys playing music, just a kick-ass rock'n'roll band and we didn't really give a s*** about labels, they're a punk band or proto-punk or garage or whatever, it all feeds into that but even if they're just a rock'n'roll band that's fine. To us it was a story about a great band and a great family; great friends. That is what we wanted to tell. So there was never any real attitude towards labelling them 'the first punk band' or anything like that. But labels are what people apply to music. That's how it is identified. To us it was about the story of this music, and these brothers".

And that is the great strength of A Band Called Death. This music is visceral, you hear Politicians In My Eyes and you just don't forget it. You wonder, perhaps, how you went through life this far without hearing a song like that! But even if you are not taken with the music in this film you are swept up by the story. It's compassionate, sincere, somewhat heartbreaking. It's a very special snapshot of history; a history that deserved to be told but might not have been caught.

Covino and Howlett know the weight of their film. It was worth the wait.

"It feels pretty good to have told this piece of history", Covino states.

"Actually it was pretty easy getting the brothers to talk", Howlett says.

"They were very willing", Covino adds.

"There was some hesitation when it came to talking about David's dark years; that was tough for them."

He describes the private screening where a rough cut of the film was shown at the school where Dennis Hackney works ("his boss at the college allowed us to host a screening when the college was closed, so we all piled in there at 10pm one night"). Every Hackney in town was there, "and a few came to visit", it was all family and friends.

"When the film ended Bobby just stood up and hugged me for minutes on end, it was very emotional."

But before that first screening he admits he was nervous ("Oh, I was a wreck, I was totally s**tting myself, are you kidding?!")

Even now it's emotional for the brothers to watch this film.

Howlett says "they've watched it a bunch of times and sometimes it's hard for them - it's a very emotional experience".

That's another of the film's strengths - the emotion conveyed is real; these guys were never stars as such so there's no hamming it up, milking it for the camera. These are ordinary people honouring their brother, their music, their former life.

A Band Called Death is, I reckon, a must-see film. Have you seen it already? Or are you keen to check it out? Are you attending a festival screening? Did you know the music already or at least know about the band?

Here's my review of the film.

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