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Documentaries 'A Band Called Death,' 'The Punk Singer' explore genre

"A Band Called Death"Image Entertainment

The Punk Singer
MPI Home Video

By Gillian G. Gaar

A Band Called Death” uncovers the hidden history of a Detroit-based rock trio that began playing punk in 1973 but had moved on stylistically by 1977, thus missing the punk boom in America. What makes the story of Death, which featured three brothers, David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, even more interesting is the band members were African-American, playing punk in a city where most black musicians aspired to play soul or Motown-influenced pop.

Brothers xx, xx, xxx comprised the Detroit-based punk rock group A Band Called Death. Photo courtesy Seattle International Film Festival.

Brothers David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney comprised the Detroit-based punk rock group A Band Called Death. The band formed in 1973; the brothers later released gospel albums under the name the 4th Movement. Photo courtesy Seattle International Film Festival.

David died in 2000, but the other Hackney brothers are happy to fill in the rest of the story. As the older brother, David called the shots; it was he, the other brothers say, who turned down an offer from Clive Davis, who agreed to sign the band if they changed their name (though in a “New York Times” article, Davis said he no recollection of meeting the group). The band members said no. But no other offers materialized, and the only Death record released at the time was a single, “Politicians in My Eyes”/“Keep On Knocking,” released on the brothers’ own Tryangle label in 1976 in a run of 500 copies. The single flopped.

The Hackneys then moved to Burlington, Vt., and released two gospel albums under the name the 4th Movement; Bobby and Dannis later formed the reggae band Lambsbread. The story of Death was relegated to the past. Then, in 2008, Bobby’s son Julian heard the single at a party in San Francisco. Looking online, the Hackneys learned in astonishment that their record was selling for hundreds of dollars and that Death had built up a cult following, all the more intense because people knew so little about the group.

A Band Called Death

Those are the people who will be most fascinated by “A Band Called Death,” as they finally learn about how, and why, three young black men became punk rockers, the struggle to fulfill their dream, and the astonishing success that finally arrived over 30 years after their sole single was released. But even if you’ve never heard of the band before you’ll find their story intriguing. The band’s influence is also shown being literally carried into the next generation via the band Rough Francis, which features three of Bobby’s sons and covers Death’s material. Death itself has reformed, and released two albums, compiled from tapes that were sitting in Bobby’s attic for decades, a clear demonstration of how there’s still exciting music out there waiting to be rediscovered.

"The Punk Singer" shares the story of musician Kathleen Hanna, who was involved in the riot grrrl movement. Her bands included Le Tigre and Bikini Kill. Photo courtesy Seattle International Film Festival.

"The Punk Singer" shares the story of musician Kathleen Hanna, who was involved in the riot grrrl movement. Her bands included Le Tigre and Bikini Kill. Photo courtesy Seattle International Film Festival.

The story in “The Punk Singer” is just as inspirational. For the first time, Kathleen Hanna goes into detail about her life story. “The Punk Singer” offers great insight into the birth of the riot grrrl movement, namely how Hanna and other friends wanted to create something promoting feminism which was also fun, in the spirit of Emma Goldman’s classic statement, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” There’s great footage of her band Bikini Kill and much historical info about the riot grrrl period that many might not be familiar with (interviewees include Bikini Kill’s Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail, Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe, and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein).

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But there more’s to Hanna’s story than riot grrrl. Her post-Bikini Kill acts generated much acclaim, particularly Le Tigre, and there’s footage and interviews about those projects. The film then becomes more personal, with Hanna finally going into detail about the extended illness that led to her withdrawing from performing. After several misdiagnoses, it was discovered she was suffering from late-stage Lyme disease, from which she has yet to fully recover.

The Punk Singer

But Hanna’s always been a fighter, and the underlying theme of “The Punk Singer” is her determination to overcome adversity, whether it be a troubled upbringing, the abuse and physical attacks she endured while in Bikini Kill (the film reveals what shocking lengths some disgruntled souls will go to in order to try and shut up someone they disagree with), or living for years not knowing what’s physically wrong with you — and then, upon learning, realizing that your work has just begun.

What’s most important about Hanna is, of course, her art and music, and the live performance footage is what makes this film so thrilling. It’s a flashback to a time when bands made no bones about having an agenda and used that platform to create music that was visceral and exciting. Can it happen again? Well, the film also shows how Hanna’s various bands have inspired others to pick up instruments (Sleater-Kinney’s following in Bikini Kill’s wake is a perfect example of this). As a role model, Hanna’s already been an amazing, if sometimes unacknowledged, success. And as “The Punk Singer” shows, as an artist, Hanna’s always looking forward to the next venture.