All the great rock & roll movies are about something besides rock & roll. Often, they tell the story of a hero, or more likely, an anti-hero, on a quest to achieve fame and glory. After years of failure and rejection, our anti-hero is unexpectedly “discovered.” He is redeemed from suffering, and the proverbial crown of laurels is placed upon his head.
It is pleasurable to sit in a theater and travel vicariously down the long and winding road to rock stardom. Those movies offer us the dream so wild it feels almost profane — the secret hope that, “Hey, it happened to Bob Dylan. It could happen to me!” Whatever the green light at the end of the dock has come to represent for us, most of us do not pursue that beautiful, implausible dream as boldly, or as fanatically, as Gatsby. Instead, we hold our wildest fantasies close to our chests, and, maybe, allow ourselves a glimpse or two of them when we go to the movies.
But there is something about the soothing darkness of a movie theater, and even of a dimly lit living room in which a television screen is softly glowing, that makes us feel as if we are dreaming — or as if we could dream, if we can’t quite get there. We go to the movies to take a break from reality’s endless, pragmatic dictates about the way we should and should not live our lives. Without self-consciousness, shame, or fear of being hopelessly naïve, we can imagine that our lives will lead us to a beautiful place — a true, Hollywood ending.
But A Band Called Death is about how things never really end. It’s a movie in which a dream deferred comes back imbued with an entirely new meaning. This is a movie about a band, but it’s also about a family, how two brothers felt time passing and wanted to change along with it, while one brother wanted to stay right where he was.
In the ’60s, David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney, three African-American brothers from Detroit, see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and decide to form a band. In 1974, they record a proto-punk album so magical, magnificent, and far ahead of its time that it sails straight over everybody else’s heads and lands in obscurity.
It’s the age of Motown, and no label is willing to sign an all-black rock band called Death. Columbia Records tries to convince the band to change their name to something more marketable, but David, the band’s singer, songwriter, and guitarist, refuses to compromise his artistic vision for the sake of a record deal. To David, naming the band Death is a positive thing, a way of reclaiming the word, and of coming to terms with the recent death of his father. David believes that, “To get to the real life, you must go through the door of death.”
A true punk before there’s even a word for it, David tells his brothers that if you change one thing about your music to suit other people, you might as well change everything. Death turns down the major label offer, and, a few years later, the band breaks up.
Years pass. Punk hits the mainstream, and then breaks. Punk albums become collectors’ items. Soon, Death’s only seven-inch is selling for 800 dollars on eBay. One day, an indie label discovers Death on a music blog, and decides to give the band’s album a proper release. The album blows up. Listeners call Death the first black punk band, and the first punk band, period. Death gets a big feature story in the New York Times and goes on tour, playing Lincoln Center as well as the rock festival circuit. Thirty-five years after recording their album, Death finally steps into the spotlight.
But there’s a problem: One of the brothers is missing from the picture. And it’s David, who was, ironically, the only one of the three who never gave up hope that the band’s music would one day find an audience. Bobby and Dannis picked up day jobs, formed other bands, and started families, but David clung stubbornly to the idea that the world would one day come looking for the songs he wrote as a teenager. He spent his days sitting on the porch and staring at the clouds, searching for hidden patterns. When the rejection of his music became too much for him to handle, he turned to alcohol for help, and eventually struggled with addiction. He died of cancer 10 years before his songs came back to life. His last words to his brother were a reminder to keep the master tapes in a safe place.
It’s impossible to forget a family legend, and at least 75 percent of this movie consists of Dannis, Bobby, and their children reminiscing about David. They say he was a visionary. He was steadfast in his beliefs. He was deeply religious. He was sensitive, and easily hurt by rejection. He was only really himself when he was playing his guitar. He could never really make himself do anything but make beautiful songs. At one point, Bobby Hackney, Jr. remembers, with tears in his eyes, that David was a lot of fun to be around, like a big kid who couldn’t grow up.
This idea rings true, that holding on to the same dream for 30 years means you can’t become anyone else but who you were when you first had that dream. Nevertheless, the movie makes it impossible for us to dismiss David, or pity him. We see him only through the anecdotes and recollections of his family, and, in their eyes, he was remarkable in every way — a brilliant artist whose dream was to back up his brothers ‘til the end. To the tight-knit Hackneys, David symbolizes a certain kind of inner strength, the strength you need to believe that your own life and the lives of those you love are significant, even when the whole world says that you, to quote Questlove of the Roots, “ain’t shit.”
It takes a lot more conviction to try to do something creative with your life when you’re not all that young anymore. It gets harder to stare at the clouds, to hold yourself to your own ideals, and to look past death and imagine something beautiful instead. I think that, in order to keep on making art of any kind, you have to have something of the voice of David Hackney in you. You have to be able to tell yourself stubbornly that what you do is important, even if the rest of the world never really gets it. It’s really hard, because this naïvely hopeful part of you is the same part of you that gets easily crushed by disappointment. But, if you want to keep on going, you have to have some kind of essential faith, like a dream that doesn’t end, or a memory you can’t forget, even if sometimes you wish you could.
Screening dates and digital downloads of A Band Called Death are available here.