Monday, September 9, 2013


The Hackney brothers in A Band Called Death
Every year, or perhaps month, seems to bring a new documentary about some obscure rock band or mysterious singer, with filmmakers eager to provide these performers with a  rebirth. Anvil: The Story of Anvil, did this well, as did last year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Searching for Sugarman.  Paul Williams is Alive came close, but was nearly derailed by its director inserting himself in several scenes, until it became less about the rediscovery of Paul Williams than about a sadsack filmmaker who wanted us to know that he and Williams became buddies.
Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s documentary A Band Called Death is a worthy addition to the rock doc canon. It’s about the Hackneys, a trio of African-American brothers from Detroit. They were  living in one of the world’s music capitals, but they weren’t interested in the sweet soul sounds coming from Motown. Instead, they preferred The Beatles, The Who, and Alice Cooper. When their mother received a financial settlement after a car accident, she gave the boys some money to spend on whatever they wanted. Wanting to imitate the expansive rock sounds they loved, the brothers bought guitars and drums and set up a makeshift rehearsal space in their bedroom.  They proceeded to slash and burn, playing amplified “white boy” music and driving their neighbors crazy.

The Hackneys (Dannis on drums, Bobby on bass, David on guitar) were known as Death. Their sound has been described as “protopunk,” or “pre-punk,” and they were indeed a year or so ahead of The Ramones, the band to which they bear the closest sonic resemblance.  But the Hackneys never call their sound “punk,” they call it rock & roll. There is punk energy in their music, and Bobby’s throaty vocals also sound a bit like The New York Dolls’ David Johansen, but there were also distinctly non-punk guitar solos from David (he wanted to be a cross between Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix), and some echo effects on the vocals that gave the band an eerie, 1950s sci-fi sound.  There’s also a staccato rhythm that erupts in certain songs, sounding like the California punk that wouldn’t surface for several years. Somehow, the Hackney brothers noodled around in their bedroom and came up with riffs that still sound fresh 40 years later.  But aside from a few self-produced singles, they didn’t record much.  The name of the band, you see, was a sticking point. Record labels wouldn’t touch it.
David, the band’s guiding light and chief songwriter, chose the name  after attending the funeral of the Hackney boys’ father. David was the sort of character that exists primarily in rock music annals, the gifted but misunderstood firebrand who can play like hell but can’t look after himself. He was a cloud gazer who saw Death as a spiritual band. Beneath the power cords was a message, or so he claimed. David was also as stubborn as a blood stain. When Clive Davis of Arista Records offered to sign the group if they’d change their name, David refused.  Death was his concept. The name had to stick.

Eventually, David’s refusal to change the band’s name caused the brothers to split up. Dannis and Bobby  left David and started a reggae band, adapting fake Jamaican accents just as easily as they’d mastered the sounds of Brit rockers.  David married, but remained a lost soul. He drank himself into oblivion until he died of cancer at age 49. Before he died, though, he gave the original Death tapes to his brother.  “Keep these,” he said. ”The world will want to hear this music after I’m gone.” It was the sort of spooky thing David was always saying, but he turned out to be right.
The documentary traces the fluke “discovery” of the tapes in the late 2000s,  chronicling how Dannis and Bobby’s sons created a Death tribute band called Rough Francis. There’s an incredibly touching scene where Bobby watches Rough Francis play Death’s old tunes at a club. Ultimately, this is a family tale. The Hackneys are warm people. When Bobby and Dannis take their first tentative steps to reform Death after more than 30 years, you can’t help but root for them.

Much will be written about Death’s place in rock history, and a few of the talking heads in the film try to give Death belated credit for being the first punk rock band. This is a stretch, as is the notion that David was some kind of genius. Granted, they were a talented, unique band, and their circumstances were fascinating. But overrating them distracts from the story being told here.  Death might’ve been great if a record label had taken time to develop them over a few albums,  but this never happened. It’s hard to say what Death could’ve accomplished. Chances are David’s oddball nature would cause them to self-destruct.  It’s scary to imagine David with rock star money.
More questions should have been asked of the two remaining Hackney brothers. Did they ever get heat from other African-American musicians for playing what was basically a white sound?  And did they know that a metal band called Death  was signed in the mid 1980s and sold over 2-million records worldwide? By some strange coincidence, the founder of that band also died young after a cancer battle. It makes one wonder what, exactly, is in a name.

* * *

When it comes to Olatunde Osunsanmi’s  Evidence, you’re probably thinking, “Another found footage movie? Is that the best they can do?”  But considering that most movies made these days are just imitations of other movies, it’s a fruitless complaint.  (I have been sick of the found footage gimmick since shortly after The Blair Witch Project, so I feel your pain.) And compared to some of this year’s horror fare, Evidence is pretty bracing.

Evidence is about a group of detectives reviewing the footage left behind after a massacre at a Nevada gas station.  Fortunately for the detectives, nearly all of the victims had a movie camera handy.  Not only that, but as some were getting killed they were able to aim and shoot and capture their demise. Apparently you can give any fool a smart phone and he turns into George Stevens on the front lines at Normandy.
The film tries like hell to do something new with the found footage stunt, and at times it almost succeeds despite a lot of hammy acting. The middle section of the movie is actually quite suspenseful, as a bunch of bus crash survivors try to fend off a masked maniac. Since the whole thing clocks in at a tidy 90 minutes, it’s relatively painless to sit through. Sure, it doesn’t amount to much, but it’s not boring.
Faint praise? Perhaps. But wouldn’t you rather I said a few nice things than to just trash another movie? Osunsanmi’s last film was The Fourth Kind,  another found footage story. That one involved alien abductions. Evidence is an improvement. Osunsanmi  seems more  in command of his tools here, and does a better job of whipping up the suspense. He still has flaws – he can’t direct actors, he’s content to let them overact, and he’s not a great storyteller – but he tries to create grand, memorable scenes, like the one where a detective pulls a cellphone memory card out of a burned corpse’s throat.
The victims were on their way to Las Vegas when their private bus was turned over after a weird passenger (the wonderful Dale Dickey) starts a tussle with an aspiring documentarian (Caitlin Stasey). Now, stranded in the middle of the night in a desert, the passengers and the driver are picked off one at a time by a psychopath right out of a 1980s splatter flick, a sickie armed with a welder’s torch.  The murders are gruesome, the killer is suitably menacing, and there’s a lot of  screaming and crying. It’s a shrill movie.
The team of detectives reviewing the found footage is headed by a no-nonsense pair (Radha Mitchell and True Blood’s Stephen Moyer) who scowl a lot and say, “Let’s get this bastard!” and “Rewind!” It’s as if they learned how to be detectives by watching CSI shows on television, just like the murder victims learned how to scream and breathe heavily by watching other found footage movies.
If you can get past the first 30 minutes or so, where the victims are having a jolly time for their little documentary (there’s nothing worse than watching bad actors pretending to be realistic for a fake documentary; it’s the acting equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard), the film gets better and develops a nice Night of the Living Dead feel, with the main characters locked in an abandoned gas station while the killer lurks about outside. Harry Lennix as Ben the bus driver is a good character, and he’s a true, steady presence in a film full of shrieking ninnies. I wish there’d been more of him. 

Other than Lennix, the best thing about Evidence is the killer. This character strikes with such cold-blooded violence that the film’s flaws are almost forgotten. At one point the killer writes on a mirror, “Fear me the way you fear God.”  Osunsanmi can’t direct actors, but he has a way with psycho killers.

Still, the ending is supposed to be a big swerve, and we’re supposed to stunned by the cleverness of the set up. Well, cleverness is a poor substitute for drama. Sitting through a movie for nothing more than a predictable “trick ending” is a disappointment.
Osunsanmi likes the horror genre, and he has a good touch. The murders in Evidence are truly horrifying.  But it’s time for Osunsanmi to move beyond the found footage gimmick and tell a real story. 
Buyer beware: There is another movie called Evidence that was released in 2011. It’s also a found footage horror film, proving that filmmakers are not only running out of ideas, they’re running out of titles.

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