This was much more interesting, and much more affecting, than I’d anticipated. In 1970’s Detroit, three brothers start playing music together in their bedroom. Nothing too surprising about that, except two things made the situation unique. First, they were Black kids playing not R&B but rock and roll, more inspired by The Who and Alice Cooper than by the Motown shop down the street. Second, the eldest brother and band leader, Dave, was an incredibly charismatic and perhaps slightly manic character, who insisted, for some overly elaborate reasons, that the band be given a sure-to-never-get-a-contract name: DEATH.
The trio records some songs at a famed Detroit studio, but sure enough, the producers can’t sell the songs because of the band’s name. (Or at least that’s the story given in the movie; I wonder if there were other factors as well.) The guys press 500 45s on their own dime and hand them out at radio stations, but nothing comes of it.
Very long story short, 30-odd years later, some of those 45s begin to surface, record collectors and rock critics get wind of it, and the guys get some respect at long last, including an issue of their original demo songs as an album from (one of my all-time favorite labels) Drag City.
I knew that much going into it. What I didn’t see coming was the extent to which this is a story about family. The bond between the brothers is amazing, and their artistic collaborations are just beautiful to watch. Two of the brothers have sons themselves, who wind up forming a band, covering some of their fathers’ and uncles’ songs, and promoting the resuscitation of DEATH, so to speak. The temptation here (as in Searching for Sugar Man, a story which has a lot parallels to this one, including (coincidentally?) a Detroit setting) is to see the moral of the story as “great art will always bob up to the surface eventually, no matter how long time and circumstance keep it submerged.” First, I don’t think that’s true; I think there is probably plenty of great art which never makes it out of the basement or attic or closet. Second, that’s a less-interesting narrative to me. The real story here to me is about how beautiful it is to do the thing you love with the people you love.
On another note of interest. I’ve elsewhere talked about an irony of contemporary life that I’ve observed: The wholesale digitization and promulgation of information has ironically empowered us to easily share and discover knowledge of analog and occult technologies. The persistent popularity of film photography is my favorite example. If the only way to learn how to operate a Hasselblad was to go down to the local camera shop and ask the staff for a lesson, you would not ever consider acquiring such a camera, because that camera shop no longer exists. However, because there are hundreds and hundreds of videos on YouTube showing you how to work the camera, you can easily figure it out. Something similar happened with that DEATH 45; its very analog rarity turned out to be part of what focused the rock critic hive mind on the band’s genius. The movie does a nice job giving us a peek into that weird world of crazy record collectors, too — have to remember to recommend this to George Hadjidakis. I’m sure he’s already heard of it, though . . .