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A Band Called Death

22/02/2021

A Band Called Death

data-src=https://creativecow.net/wp-content/uploads/avatars/331518/6032a6618ca8b-bpthumb.jpg data-srcset=https://creativecow.net/wp-content/uploads/avatars/331518/6032a661768ea-bpfull.jpg 2x class=lazyload avatar avatar-80 photo height=80 width=80 />

Debra Kaufman February 22, 2021

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Playing music impossibly ahead of its time, Death is now being credited as the first black punk band (heck the first punk band!) and its members Bobby Hackney, Sr., Dannis Hackney, David Hackney, and Bobbie Duncan are finally receiving their long overdue recognition as true rock pioneers. Directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino speak about the making of this surprising film.

Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, three African-American teenage brothers formed a band in their spare bedroom and played proto-punk music. In this era of Motown and disco, record companies found Death's music and band name too intimidating, and the group disbanded.

Released by Drafthouse Films, A Band Called Death chronicles the journey of what happened almost three decades later, when a 1974 demo tape stored in an attic found an audience several generations younger.

Debra Kaufman: How did you find this story and what about it made you want to make a movie about it?

Jeff Howlett: I knew the family for about 20 years. I was introduced to them in the early 1990s when I was in a rock band and we played a festival with Lambsbread, Bobby and Dannis' reggae band. Bobby Jr. told me that he was in a band, Rough Francis, covering his father's music, so I went to a local venue in 2008, thinking I would get some Lambsbread.

When I heard the band's music, I was completely blown away. I was shocked just like Julian was when he says in the movie, Dad, why didn't you tell me you played punk music? In fact, a lot of us music guys in and around Vermont were completely shocked about the whole Death thing. Right after the concert, I downloaded the song and Ben Blackwell put the songs on the chunklet website.

Fast forward a few months, when the Death album was re-issued on Drag City records. It was about the time the New York Times article came out in March 2009, and that's when I started documenting what was going on. I sent my friend Mark [Covino], with whom I'd worked on a music video, the New York Times piece and the two-track chunklet, and asked if he were interested in getting involved.

data-src=https://gcs.creativecow.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/21181728/Creative_Commons_Mark_Covino_MG_7195_Brattle_Theatre_CC_BY-NC-ND_20.jpg alt= class=lazyload wp-image-2404376/>Mark Covino, Brattle Theatre

Image courtesy Creative CommonsMark Covino: I had just met Jeff on this music video and he was yapping in my ear about Death and this New York Times article. I'd come off three years, spending $25,000 of my own cash to make my own feature doc, and I was burned out on documentaries. So I told him I wasn't completely interested, but when he said it would only be a 20-minute documentary, I said, sure, send over the article and two audio tracks. Then I didn't look at his email for 2 weeks. I ignored it. I didn't know who Jeff was and thought the story didn't sound real.

I was having one of those I'm a filmmaker not making the film I want to make moments. My other doc was about hip-hop and couldn't get finished. Then I finally read the NYT article and it stopped me in my tracks. Everything Jeff told me about the band flooded into my mind. I played the track Keep On Knocking and couldn't believe how perfect a movie this would make. I called Jeff and said he was out of his mind to do a 20-minute doc. This had to be a feature story.

Jeff: I was just finishing film school, at Burlington College in Vermont, and I had never made a documentary before. The first interviews we did were with Bobby and Dannis at their practice space, and we knew right away from those interviews that there was something special about this that it was going to be way more than just 20 minutes.

data-src=https://gcs.creativecow.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/21181539/Creative_Comons_Jeff_Howlett_Collodion_Shooter_adoephoto.jpg alt= class=lazyload wp-image-2404375/>Jeff Howlett, Collodion Shooter

Image courtesy Creative Commons, adoephotoMark: From those interviews, we got names of people and friends of theirs. We'd read online about celebrities talking about the band and we compiled a list of them to interview. We made it our mission to interview everyone connected to the story. At a certain point, we became aware that it was less about the band and more about David, and his love for his brothers. Once we got into that, it became a whole different movie and a better movie than the one we first thought we were going to make.

We knew we had to tell this story by any means necessary. There was no Kickstarter or Indiegogo then. We got to a place where we were completely broke, at the end of our rope. About a year- and-a-half after we started, we talked on the phone about putting the movie on hold since it was killing us. We even talked about abandoning it, because it was destroying us financially and at home. We thought, let's shoot every now and then, and make it a 5-year project. It was a pretty depressing phone conversation.

Two hours after that conversation, a friend of mine in Vermont who follows celebrities texted me that Hollywood producer Scott Mosier was tweeting about our movie. I called my friend and asked what the hell he was talking about. Apparently Scott had come across a promo Jeff and I had cut and put online, and Scott was raving about how he wanted to see the movie. I asked my friend to write Scott a direct message on Twitter and send him my personal email and the trailer, which is way better than the promo. And to tell him tha
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