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More than one direction for music docs

August 31, 2013

It’s to the point where I’m almost boycotting Hollywood during the summer. I’m tired of the retreads and comic book movies.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t movies to check out. A couple of gems this summer were musical documentaries, both about obscure bands, one of whom I’d known for years and the other a new discovery. Obviously I’m not talking about the new One Direction movie. (How the hell did Morgan Spurlock sign on for that?)

A Band Called Death

A Band Called Death

A Band Called Death chronicles the Hackney brothers of Detroit. Its tagline is “Before there was punk…” While punk existed both in name and in form before Death (and certainly before it was exported to England), there’s no doubt these guys were their own band. Even though Detroit was a centre of shitheel hard rock and early punk, it’s clear that the Hackneys, especially brother David, were making music that was different what others in the African-American community, but they seemed to be on the verge of finding an audience.

They were shopped to the legendary Clive Davis, but the record exec balked, as did everyone else in the music business. The reason was the band’s name, which David Hackney refused to change. Even though David isn’t directly in the documentary, the movie really is about him, his singular vision and an unfolding of events that seems eerily fatalistic. As much as anything, this is a movie about the power of belief.

While Death was an unknown to me prior to the movie, the same can’t be said of Big Star. I’d first heard the band about twenty years ago while working in a music warehouse. Unlike Death, who seemed closed to getting signed but never did, Big Star recorded for local Memphis label Ardent, but both the band and Ardent were the victims of label wars being waged between bigger companies. The band’s story is chronicled in the film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.

While they were never a household name, they should’ve been. In my view, they should’ve been one of the biggest acts of the 1970s. Unlike Death, who toiled in anonymity, Big Star influenced so many alternative bands: The Replacements, who honoured lead singer Alex Chilton with a song named after him, R.E.M., the dB’s, Teenage Fan Club, Elliott Smith, Cheap Trick and so on. (If you don’t know, the theme for That ’70s Show was Big Star’s “In the Street,” performed by Cheap Trick.)

While I knew much of the story already, the film did offer some treats, most notably a look inside producing giant Jim Dickinson’s home and studio. I also learned Ardent Studios landed the first mellotron outside of Britain. (The mellotron, if you don’t know, was an early synth-type keyboard that could mimic strings, choirs, etc. The Beatles used it, but it was best known in prog circles, i.e. the Moody Blues, Genesis, King Crimson.)

The documentary also doesn’t bury Chris Bell’s contribution to the band, or his truly sad story. In a way, he almost remained truer to the original Big Star vision than did Chilton, even though he was only there for the first album. Whereas Chilton had a solo career, albeit a checkered one, following Big Star, his bandmate seemed all the more tragic for leaving a band that was so far ahead of its time, due to drugs, mental issues, etc. (Like so many others, Bell ended up in the 27 club, dying in a car crash a couple of week’s shy of his 28th birthday.)

Both films follow the almost-rise and fall or better-late-than-never pattern of films like Searching for Sugar Man and Buena Vista Social Club. My hunch is there is no shortage of bands or performers that never made it, that almost got signed, that did get signed but whose recordings were shelved or never promoted. Many are probably better left to obscurity, but doubtless there are at least a few more flashes of gold in the pan amidst the pyrite, and I for one would look forward to checking these docs out – winter, spring, summer or fall.

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From → Essays

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