Some documentaries are review proof for me. Almost anything that is about a famous but long forgotten artist, a subsection of an obscure culture, or about filmmaking gets a pass from me. It has to be really egregious for me to hate on it because that is what interests me. Just like a science fanatic will watch Cosmos on the night premieres than illegally download it so that they can watch it over and over again, I will watch anything about the joys of vinyl. I am saying all this as a way of an apology. I know that this movie isn’t perfect and yet I don’t care.
Death was a punk rock band started by three brothers in the early seventies. This band was important because it was the first real punk band, let alone the first African-American one. They formed in Detroit where these brothers grew up and they practiced in their childhood rooms. A local record company responded to the group leader’s solicitations and let them record a 45 that they released independently (also very punk). They would record more songs than what was needed for a 45 with the intention of doing an album, but the 45 was not successful so the record company dropped them. But the group leader had the foresight to see that his songs were worth something, so grabbed the masters. Through a bunch of convoluted events, two brothers broke away from the group leader and formed their own band in a genre that was more popular at the time than punk, reggae. Several years pass. A couple of vinyl enthusiasts discover this band’s 45s in random record shops and the band gets rediscovered. The men who formed a band in their youth are now able to sell out concert venues with that same material.
There is a lot of heart in this movie. It was made by a person that clearly loves not just this band, but also the thrill of finding an undiscovered band in general. But this clear intention does not always produce great results. The first half of the movie is clunky and stuffed with irrelevant side stories as the band members get into their personal history. This is mainly because the most charismatic and the clear leader of the group had died before their band gained a resurgence. Instead we are left with the two other brothers who seem to be of an agreeable nature. So we don’t get any true emotions out of them until they start to talk about their brother. It only began to pick up when we started to see how the band was rediscovered. We get to see obsession and nerdiness up close and personal. When one of the collectors talks about finding the record for the first time on ebay, his eyes light up and his joy is indescribable. Then we learn that one of the surviving brothers had three sons who also learned how to play instruments. When the oldest son discovers that his dad’s music is being played at hipster parties, he flips out. The love for not just his father, but his whole family is palpable and the words said earlier by the two surviving brothers about family actually shows through on a human level.
The music is great. The story is interesting. And the redemption of a long lost band is uplifting. If only the directors had been a little bit tighter on the editing bay, then I think they would have had a brilliant film that explores not just underground music, but also family and inherent genius.
By the way, I want one of their logo shirts, if anyone is willing to fork over the cash….