Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Cinema File #219: "A Band Called Death" Review

I often find myself stymied when attempting to classify the music I enjoy listening to. Most of this comes from the fact that a lot of my favorite music is fairly eclectic (what genre would you call They Might Be Giants, Elvis Costello, Oingo Boingo, or Weird Al Yankovic for instance?), but even when I’m listening to more mainstream stuff, sometimes I have trouble with the labels. “Is this rock, alt rock, punk, proto punk, metal, nu metal? It’s still rock and roll to me,” I might say, and then I realize I’m once again quoting Billy Joel songs to solve all my problems, which means I’m officially too lame to even be having this train of thought (you have no idea how many I times I’ve moved out of Allentown to escape those pesky arson charges). It all just seems so confusing, so if you want to tell me that a band called Death, as featured in the new documentary A Band Called Death, is the first black punk band, or even the first punk band in general, I’ll just have to take your word for it.

A Band Called Death follows the two surviving members of the titular rock trio that you may have never heard of unless you’ve already seen the doc, or read the New York Times piece that inspired it. The reason you may have never heard of them is that apart from a few hundred self-pressed 45s, most of which spent years rotting in obscurity, their one album’s worth of music had until recently never been given a wide release. A Band Called Death is the story of a dream cut short by industry bias and self-sabotage, only to be reclaimed decades later by sheer luck and the power of file sharing music nerds. It’s supposed to be a heartwarming reminder that faith and art can still prevail even in these jaded times, but unfortunately there are a few things that in retrospect eat away at that narrative. While still highly enjoyable, the film ultimately comes to be about the ghost of the band’s third member, arguably the greatest creative force behind Death’s brief initial career, and how he continues to haunt his family, for better and for worse.

The film’s score is mostly composed of the 7 songs the band composed for what would eventually be their debut album, and the music is very good, enough to justify the film if only as a showcase for it’s soundtrack. What’s most interesting about the band’s music is that despite how different it is compared to everything else around at the time and how rough around the edges much of it is, nobody ever questions the brilliance of it. That’s not to say that they should, but considering the initial failure of the band to secure a record contract, it’s strange to see basically everyone recognize that all other things being equal, their talent should have guaranteed them a successful career. The reason they didn’t is even stranger, and the reveal is one of those moments that undercuts the inspirational tone, when you realize that their life of relative obscurity is really nobody’s fault but their own, or more specifically, their now dead lead guitarist and primary songwriter.

The only stumbling block was the name. They had a record contract ready to sign, won solely on the strength of their music and their passion, but the only condition was that they change the name of the band to something less controversial than Death, and the one guy who came up with it refused. Now, maybe I’m biased, knowing full well that if I was ever offered the chance to peddle my art for profit, I’d whore myself out and change anything they asked me to, but even allowing for a smidgen more dignity and integrity than I have, this seems like a bit much. The movie mostly treats this as something to respect, staying true to the art of it, even at one point explicitly comparing the decision to Jesus’ refusal of the temptations of Satan. Personally, it’s hard for me to feel bad for these guys for their years in the wilderness, or to feel good about their triumphant return to relevance, knowing they could have had decades of creative and financial success if they’d only been willing to make one extremely small concession.

And it wouldn’t be so bad if the two remaining band members didn’t lionize their brother so fervently. I know that probably sounds a little harsh, but these guys aren’t even oblivious to the fact that their brother ruined their one best chance at stardom and consigned them to a life of mediocrity out of stubborn pride, they’re just too loyal to condemn him for it. And it would be different if the brother actually lived up to his bullshit uncompromisable image of himself, but then you find out later that he does relent to a name change, only years after it matters, and then after he breaks up the band and moves away, he has the temerity to accuse his brothers of rock and roll apostasy for starting a Reggae band in his absence, when all they ever wanted to do was be in his band, and he wouldn’t let ‘em! This guy is easily as much the villain of the piece as some lost genius, but by the end, every concert they play is watched over by a poster featuring his image, as if he’s staring down upon them from heaven, thankfully far enough away now that he’s not in a position to continue ruining their lives at every turn.

The presentation is fun and lighthearted for the most part, even treating the tragedy in the lives of its subjects with an optimistic approach as we see the band's dreams finally begin to come true. How this happens so many years after they'd all given up on Death is the main hook of the movie, and is a genuinely interesting example of how technology has universalized everything. Death the band was born in an era when there was such a thing called the underground, before the Internet made virtually everything available to everybody if they're willing to look hard enough, and that even a stray 45 single could make its way to someone willing and able to convert it to MP3s and share it online is amazing in itself, even if the band it was resurrecting and revealing to the world didn't embody so much untapped potential. Its all nice enough, though I don't quite get the crescendo of joy I gather I'm supposed to feel by the end, though I certainly wish the new Death all the best in their future endeavors. It has its problems, but if you're at all interested in music history however obscure, you'll probably find enough to enjoy.
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