As documentaries become more and more prevalent, very specific subgenres are starting to emerge. One that’s been gaining currency of late is Obscure Musical Artist Rediscovered, as pioneered in Anvil! The Story Of Anvil and subsequently seen in Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, Paul Williams: Still Alive (a trend is emerging), Last Days Here (about the lead singer of Pentagram), and the Oscar-winning Searching For Sugar Man. Now comes A Band Called Death, which tells the story of three Detroit brothers who were playing what some call proto-punk back in the early ’70s, at a time when Motown ruled the city. Frankly, Death’s music, as sporadically heard in the film, sounds more like metal than punk (and the surviving members acknowledge their debt to Black Sabbath), but for an African-American trio to be playing almost any form of rock ’n’ roll at that time was highly unusual. In any case, success eluded them, and they were only finally discovered a few years ago, when a rare copy of their self-financed 45 surfaced, lighting up Internet message boards and being played by collectors at underground clubs.
For a while, A Band Called Death seems too thin to support a feature-length movie. Archival footage of the band is virtually nonexistent, forcing the filmmakers to lean heavily on the trendy device of creating 3-D images from a handful of still photos. And the most ambitious and committed of the three brothers, David Hackney, died of lung cancer in 2000, leaving an enormous hole for the other two to work around in their interviews. (This is especially problematic because David’s integrity in refusing to change the band’s name—a decision that killed a potential recording contract—is the most compelling aspect of their early history.) But the film springs to life in its second half, when the members’ grown kids, who are also working musicians, discover that their dads/uncles were in a forgotten, innovative band that the family had never once mentioned. These docs often conclude with some sort of triumphant reunion tour, but it’s more heartwarming than usual to see children paying tribute to their parents by covering their ancient songs. Just so long as it doesn’t inspire viewers to go searching their own attics for more potential doc fodder.