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Release Date: August 13th, 2013 Movie Release Year: 2013

A Band Called Death

Overview -

Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was a band called Death. Punk before punk existed, three teenage brothers in the early '70s formed a band in their spare bedroom, began playing a few local gigs and even pressed a single in the hopes of getting signed. But this was the era of Motown and emerging disco. Record companies found Death's music -- and band name -- too intimidating, and the group was never given a fair shot, disbanding before they even completed a single album.

Equal parts electrifying rockumentary and epic family love story, A Band Called Death chronicles the incredible fairy-tale journey of what happened almost three decades later, when a dusty 1974 demo tape made its way out of the attic and found an audience several generations younger. Playing music impossibly ahead of its time, Death is now being credited as the first black punk band (hell...the first punk band!), and are finally receiving their long overdue recognition as true rock pioneers.

Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Video Resolution/Codec:
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Special Features:
High Quality 720p HD Digital Download of the Film
Release Date:
August 13th, 2013

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take


The music industry is a fickle mistress. No successful band has ever had an easy route to the top. The story of DEATH was over before it even began. Most “rock docs” look back on a band’s success before an eventual failure foreshadowed by the unforeseen meteoric rise. A Band Called Death chronicles a non-starter. No sold out shows. No groupies. No lavish lifestyles of rock & roll. OK, so what’s the story then?

This 2012 documentary film from co-directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett is about the Hackney brothers from Detroit, who in the 70s would form a band, arguably record the first punk music, and then disappear into obscurity until the MP3 age. The brothers (David, Bobby, and Dannis) grew up in 1970s Detroit. Motown to be specific. Influenced by The Who and Alice Cooper, the brothers distanced themselves from the sounds of Motown immediately. Their drive to emulate the rock gods they worshiped meant long practice sessions in their tiny bedroom for all the neighbors to hear….and feel! Shortly after they started making music their father passed away in a terrible car accident. This tragedy caused David to embrace a spirituality in his life and work that instantly affected the band. The brothers considered David to be artistic compass for their music. When he said the band would be called DEATH in order to put a positive spin on the word, Dannis and Bobby agreed.

DEATH practiced in their Detroit suburban bedroom blasting proto-punk sounds through the walls and into the ears of their Earth, Wind and Fire-loving neighbors. To most who heard their music it didn’t sound “black” like the soul and funk typical of the era, but of “white boy music”. DEATH kept on practicing. Their songs included spiritual elements and drove harder with faster tempos and a contained chaos within the compositions. Nearly 2 years before punk, these guys were punk.

After a few efforts to play locally, David wanted DEATH to have a record deal. The music needed an audience and these starving artists needed money. They signed a deal with Groovesville Records and cut a demo. A single was pressed and distributed to radio stations. It played at odd, irregular hours. Most turned them down stating that their name wouldn’t attract listeners. The Hackney brothers remained optimistic. Yet another record deal was nearly in their grasp when their name became the deal breaker. David wouldn’t change the name no matter what. In public Dannis and Bobby supported their brother’s decision and commitment, but a bitterness grew behind closed doors.

The Hackney brothers were up against a wall at this point. With no one wanting to play their tunes they were forced to sell their instruments to pay bills. DEATH was done. Soon after a distant relative heard of their troubles and invited the brothers to his home in Vermont to escape their lives in Detroit for bit. After a much needed break DEATH reformed with new gear and a new name: The 4th Movement. It was David’s spirituality again that catapulted the band into motion. The music was still DEATH, but the message was an enlightened religious one that didn’t sit well with their new fans in Burlington, Vermont. The rejection hit David the hardest. He moved back to Detroit while Dannis and Bobby continued on with 4th Movement. They hoped he would return renewed, but that never happened. Dannis and Bobby formed a new band called Lambsbread that would become a very successful reggae group in the northeast. Back in Detroit David wasn’t pleased when he heard of his brothers' success. 

Years later David handed over the DEATH master tapes to Bobby and said  “One day the world is gonna come looking for this…” Not long after this David passed away from lung cancer. The tapes were packed away in Bobby’s attic to be forgotten. 8 years later that single the band pressed for radio play ended up on eBay. Thanks to an old friend who never took the album to radio stations DEATH was out in the open. A few niche collectors saw the listing and freaked out. Those who knew about DEATH only heard about the record in hushed tones. It was a mythical relic to the Who’s Who of vinyl gurus. When two MP3’s were uploaded to a music blog DEATH began to circulate again. Bloggers, critics, and fans were clamoring to know who was responsible for making this “punk before punk” sound.

The film is an engaging watch from start to finish. Using archival photos and interviews, 'A Band Called Death' utilizes the typical documentary elements. However, it’s the music cues from the band’s catalog accentuating emotional beats and the cast of characters that set this film apart. The Hackney family has endured so much since the death of the family’s patriarch. All they could do was support each other and maintain a spiritual compass to guide them. No rock doc shows the power of spiritual legacy like 'A Band Called Death'. This connection to family and spirit is brought to life in the film through personal interviews and footage shot by the Hackney family. Using handheld cameras, the brothers take charge of the storytelling to contribute their raw ideas to the film. The handheld segments are more sincere and honest visually than the clean looking shots and interviews. This juxtaposition allows you to see that underneath DEATH, there was life.

The Blu-ray Vital Disc Stats

A BAND CALLED DEATH arrives on Region A Blu-ray thanks to Drafthouse Films. The movie is pressed onto a BD50 disc housed in a clear case with reversible slip cover and booklet. Also included is a Digital Copy code (if that’s your thing). The disc opens to a promo for Drafthouse Films’ Alliance membership featuring other Drafthouse Films’ releases before arriving to an animated menu. When you hear “DEATH!” screamed across your living room, you’ll know you made it.

Video Review


'A Band Called Death' uses several different sources for it’s footage, as well as different operators all culled into one gorgeous 1080p picture presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Assembling the film from Super 8, VHS, Mini DV, and HD footage allows the film to show the band’s history. Vintage pieces were cleaned up and processed without sacrificing the quality of the presentation. Photographs notably were cleaned and animated with some 3D elements to breathe life into the static portions of the film. The transfer is clear and clean. Colors pop and the darks are solid with only deviations apparent during the vintage footage elements. A rocking presentation from top to bottom!

Audio Review


'A Band Called Death' provides a lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix as well. Both tracks are English and are accompanied by optional English closed captions. A majority of the film is dialogue which is produced with sharp accuracy across the center channel. However, the music tracks throughout the film accentuate the audio across the surround spectrum without making you reach for the volume button. The mix is spot on. At no point would the punk tracks create an imbalance with the dialogue. Music documentaries rarely impress me this much with the balance between talking heads and rocking riffs.

Special Features


Audio Commentary: A Band Called Death offers two audio commentary tracks. The first track features Co-Directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett moderated by Drafthouse Films exec Evan Husney. This track is full of technical info, backstories on the directors, and behind-the-scenes work on the film. If you dug the film, listen here. The second track is with the Hackney family. Contributions from Bobby Sr., Dannis, Bobby Jr., and Urian provide an honest and comical look back at the process of filming DEATH’s origins and an outlet to further praise David for its efforts in making it all happen.

Q&A at Vermont International Film Festival (HD 12:57) (DD 2.0) A short Q&A with the directors and band at the festival. Some nice moments here. Definitely check this out.

Deleted Scenes (HD 54:53) (DD 2.0) So much footage was shot for this film that it’s no surprise that an hour of scenes made it on the Blu-ray. Notable among these scenes are VHS footage of David playing guitar at home and the Groovesville Records walk-through that was severely cut in the final film. If the story of DEATH sucked you in, then watch these scenes. The Hackney brothers can be long-winded at times so you can tell why some of these didn’t make the final cut.

Music Video (HD 6:10) (DD 2.0) “Let the World Turn” directed by Mark Covino. A concert video with multiple cameras set up across the venue. Presentation looks and sounds crisp.

- A Band Called Death
- Higher Ground Spot: Promo spot for a Detroit concert from 2010.
- Death Promo: 2009 Tour Promo
- LAFF Spot: Promo for the Los Angeles Film Festival
- VTIFF Trailer: Vermont International Film Festival Promo

Trailers (HD)
-The FP
-The Ambassador
-Miami Connection
-Wake in Fright
-Drafthouse Alliance Membership

Documentaries are a very cut-and-dry genre, right? You have a subject that needs exploring with factual accounts supporting the story and hopefully the film resolves with the viewer becoming enlightened or educated on the matter. For a documentary to entertain not only a music audience, but also captivate a non-music viewer is extraordinary. A Band Called Death sits on my shelf because it tells a truth stranger than fiction. You can’t make this stuff up! The music will hook you and the story will suck you in. The inspiring story behind the slamming proto-punk tracks will engage you till the very end. Drafthouse Films did an amazing job curating this film’s release. With a tremendous DTS-HD audio track and a dynamic 1080p transfer it’s hard to put this one back on the shelf. Highly recommended.