Even though the music portion of SXSW gets all the attention, it's the film portion that runs the longest, but every year, as music starts and the end of SXSW looms closer, the crowds at the film portion get smaller and more ragged. That was particularly noticeable on day seven, as both of the premiers I saw were sadly under-attended. That was more understandable with the first, Good Vibrations, which was an Irish film lacking major stars, but the second, A Band Called Death, seemed like it should be a perfect fit for the music fans, as it focused on the recently rediscovered proto-punk outfit Death, who are the very definition of "ahead of their time," and the band was even in attendance for a Q&A after.
Good Vibrations lacked any kind of uniqueness to it, instead it occupied a safe middle-ground between the wonderful and sorely underrated Breakfast on Pluto and the recent flop Killing Bono. Where the former was an extremely imaginative take on "the troubles" that had the Irish music scene at its heart and the latter was a mediocre adaptation of an interesting book about one of Ireland's musical also-rans that utilized "the troubles" as extra flavor, Good Vibrations tried to cram the rise of punk and the peak of the modern era of "the troubles" into what is essentially a story about a music lover who sabotages his own success at every turn. The music fan in question is the legendary Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer), the "godfather of Irish Punk" and discoverer of the Undertones and proprietor of Good Vibrations Records, a store turned label. Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's direction of the film is too busy for the material, and their decision to shove awkward style diversions into the film– specifically Terri's True Romance-style relationship with a hallucination of Hank Williams– works against the story. Hooley's story is an extremely interesting one, particularly given his role in shining a light on Belfast's culture, but the directors don't seem confident of that and the style choices they make appear to be there in an effort to keep everyone interested. That bleeds into Dormer's performance as well, which is goofy and stilted, like an imitation from a sketch stretched out to feature length.
The compressed timeline of the film– which naturally focuses on the punk era– also works against it, making the movie feel rushed particularly as it builds to its big, unearned faux-climax. Because narrative biopics require three act structures and redemptive arcs, we ultimately get a silly "let's save the store by throwing a benefit concert!" storyline, but Hooley's story arguably would have been better served by a documentary, where the story is allowed to progress more naturally and redemptive arcs aren't expected. Hooley deserves a great examination of his life and personal problems, but this film isn't it.
Fortunately, A Band Called Death serves its subjects much better. A documentary about Death, a phenomenal and completely overlooked Detroit proto-punk band from the early '70s that was comprised of three black brothers, the film is a true passion project that just happens to have an organic redemptive arc. Like most fans of the band, I discovered Death as a result of the uncovering of their rare classic single "Politicians in My Eyes," which features such unrivaled potency and charisma that you can't help but want to seek out any material on the artist who created it (and if you're like me, you cram it into all kinds of things like, oh, say, a comics podcast). But the 21st century discoverers of the single were shocked to learn that nearly no information about the band existed and there were no other recordings available outside of that 45.
As the documentary shows, Death's story is a heartbreaking one, full of missed opportunities and compromises that has now been given a happy ending of sorts thanks to some devoted fans and the internet. Originally featuring three brothers, David, Dannis and Bobby Hackney, Death's roots are in Detroit, where they wrote and practiced material in their parents' home, much to the chagrin of their neighbors. The Hackney brothers were able to form the band because of a settlement their mother had received, which she used to buy them instruments, and it was David, the guitarist, who led the group and built its image and gave it its name. Originally called Rock Fire Funk Express, David retitled the band Death after the passing of their father, and he intended it as a positive name, the emphasis on the natural cycle aspect of death rather than the more morbid elements. But the name naturally got in the way of their success, particularly in regards to their relationship with Detroit music mogul Don Davis, who was unable to land the band a record deal because of David's refusal to alter the name in any way.
While Death stuck together for quite some time and even survived a move to the East Coast, they eventually broke up after David reconfigured them as a Christian rock ensemble called The 4th Movement. That band failed to take off and David relocated to Detroit, which is the start of the modern story of Death. David, who had long struggled with alcoholism and was never able to have much success with his music career, eventually began to tell his family that he didn't feel he had long to live and he insisted that his brothers hold on to the Death master tapes because he believed that there would soon be a new interest in the band. Not long after David succumbed to lung cancer, that premonition of his came true as Ben Blackwell, a legendary Detroit music figure in his own right, posted the "Politicians in My Eyes" single to the music site Chunklet and interest exploded.
The documentary succeeds because it's clear that those involved with it are people like Blackwell, music fans who heard the material and became obsessed with it and couldn't rest until they tracked down the band and any other work they had. While Bobby and Dannis had had some success with their reggae band Lamb's Bread, they were understandably shocked to see this new interest in their old band, and their children– musicians in their own right– were even more shocked to learn that their parents had been involved with something so revolutionary. A Band Called Death's directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett were able to get incredible access to the Hackney family and while the excellent style they bring to the film is a treat, the film's real value is in this intimate look at a family rediscovering its own history. It was disappointing to see so few people in the screening, but I feel there's a lot of potential fo
r this film to be a success in the vein of previous SXSW standout Searching for Sugar Man, which also hinged on an incredible musical rediscovery. A Band Called Death isn't just a punk documentary, it's a story of the power for art to come back to life long after it's considered lost, and of the impact great material can have no matter the era.
Nick Hanover doesn't want to set the world on fire, unless he has to, which seems increasingly more likely each day. As Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, he most looks forward to making subliterate internet commenters angry and forcing his record collection on unsuspecting readers through his comic, film and television reviews and miscellaneous other pop culture pieces for the site. He promises to update Panel Panopticon more this year, but you can always find his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover or explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness.