Reporting Jonathon Sharp
The great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once said that there’s only a few stories. That aphorism bore true, I found, when watching two rock ‘n’ roll documentaries slated to come out this weekend — A Band Called Death and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.
Both feature the phantoms of dead, visionary frontmen, a strange emphasis on spirituality and a focus on real rock ‘n’ roll.
I should say: both films are good, and playing in the same place, St. Anthony Main. You just sort of have to figure out who’s your the opening gig, and who’s your headliner.
A Band Called Death had me at the name.
The doc tells the story of three black brothers (biological, that is) who formed the first punk band ever in Detroit. And if that doesn’t pique your interest, just stop reading now.
When Death hit the scene, it was in the early 1970s: a time when black music meant Motown. This was before the Sex Pistols, before the Ramones. But Death’s music would have similar qualities – thrashing riffs and rapid-fire beats — with lyrics about corrupt politicians and “freakin’ out.” Death was from the future, and no one was ready.
Far from being about sex, drugs and rock’ n’ roll, A Band Called Death is about struggle, family and holding on to master tapes. Directors Mark Covin and Jeff Howlett tell the band’s story through the two members who are still with us. They give first-hand accounts of the band’s history, and shape a profile of its founder: their late brother, David Hackney, who died in 2000.
David played guitar and decided to dedicated his life to rock after seeing Alice Cooper live. He named the band Death for its shock value and to try to turn the concept on its head. The naming, as it happened, came not long after their father’s passing, and the name was David’s attempt to turn the finality of death into something else — something more transient, transformative, possibly fun.
And everyone hated it. Even David’s brothers/bandmates didn’t like it. And when they took their proto-punk songs to labels, the suits liked the music but couldn’t stomach the name. The band recorded in a studio; and when it came to sending their stuff out, they couldn’t land any deals unless they dropped D-E-A-T-H.
Watching the brothers talk about this is pretty sad. They never really got a chance. After a few more years, things folded. The brothers moved on to other projects, and the Death music was left to collect dust in an attic.
This sadness is mitigated in the film when record collectors, years later, start trading for the Death recordings. At long last, the music was recognized (by the New York Times, for instance) , but the main man behind it — David — isn’t in the picture any more. He’s already dead.
By the end of the film, the two remaining brothers are playing Death music again, to enthusiastic audiences and they look like they’re having fun and keeping David’s memory alive at the same time. But I couldn’t watch that without deeply wanting to see Death in their prime. Imagine it, if you can. Three young dudes with huge afros thrashing about, radially slinging sweat into an audience that didn’t quite know what it was hearing, expect that it was rock and it was intense and different. But no such footage exits. And it’s not likely such concerts ever happened.
Perhaps this is the price that’s paid when you’re a punk band before punk exists. And besides, punk rock isn’t about fame or fortune or record deals, right? It’s about making something yourself, sticking to your guns — even if it means taking them to an early, lonely grave.
While Death was driving their neighbors wild in Detroit, the kids in Big Star were making records that later musicians in bands like R.E.M. and the Flaming Lips would adore and only dream of emulating. Big Star was one of those bands that critics and musicians loved but their records just couldn’t find a foothold in the commercial market. But perhaps you’re tempting fate when you name your band Big Star.
Like A Band Called Death, the story in Nothing Can Hurt Me is told by the band members who are still with us, as well as rock critics. And two figures emerge in the telling: Chris Bell and Alex Chilton.
The first guy founded the band, and then lost it when rock critics gave all the credit to Alex, the singer. Bell then became a wondering recluse who continued to make rock music — good stuff, but with a heavy dose of born-again Christianity — and died young, and sad.
Alex, on the other band, was something of a creative powerhouse. Before he was in Big Star, he had a hit record with the Box Tops. He was one of those charismatic guys that would move on from project to project, constantly changing. Something like an Omar Rodriguez Lopez or a Brian Eno, if you know what I mean.
Directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori adoringly shape the film, with heavy scoops of Big Star praise from critics, musicians and those who knew the band. Perhaps the most interesting insight they give us — beside the band’s history — is into the Memphis rock scene, a place of heavy partying and loads of creative, destructive and incendiary people.
It should be said that if you know the Big Star story already, I’m not sure you’d get too much out of this, beside some pictures and anecdotes. Nothing Can Hurt Me, due to its lack of footage of the band together (hanging out, making music), feels more like a history lesson than a documentary on art, like say like Godard’s film on the Stones.
Still, the story is a powerful, if not an uncommon one. I mean, I’ve been listening to Big Star on Spotify ever since I saw the film last week. And if making me a fan of Big Star was part of what DeNicola and Mori set out to do, then mission accomplished.