Finding Vivian Maier (2013) Documentary | Biography | Mystery Film. Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel



Real estate agent, John Maloof explains how a trip to a local auction house, in search for old pictures to use for a book history of his neighborhood, resulted in him bidding and winning a box full of old negatives. John, goes through the massive quantity of negatives, describes how impressed he was by the quality of the images, quickly determined they were not reverent to his project and just put them away. That could have very likely had been the end of the story, if the power of the images had not pushed him to fall in love with photography. John confides that his photo hobby quickly motivated him to set up a darkroom and devote large amounts of time shooting. As he learned more about photography, he recognized that those negatives he had bought, then stored, were the work of a real master. In an attempt to confirm his suspicion, he selected about 100 images and put them online with the hope that the feedback would confirm his judgement as to the strength of the images. Written by Lane J. Lubell of


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

“Though it’s never less than engaging, there’s a nagging sense of missing out on the bigger picture.”

We’ve all had one of those moments when we’ve opened a second-hand book and photograph placeholder or other personal item has slipped out. As we gaze at the unknown face, we wonder who is in the frame and who wielded the camera. This, although on a slightly more deliberate and grander scale, is what happened to John Maloof. A serial bidder at auctions, he shelled out on a whim for a large box of negatives – one of several for sale on that particular day – and after letting them gather dust, finally decided to scan a handful of them and upload them to photosharing website Flickr.

The photos were so striking that he decided to try to find out more about the photographer Vivian Maier but a Google search yielded nothing. Two years later, a second search chanced upon her recent obituary and the ball was set in motion for what would become something of an obsession. Maier, it turns out, was not a photographer who had simply never quite made it but a children’s nanny who, although never without her camera, seems to have very rarely shared her work with others.


Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskell take a traditional approach to their documentary, rebuilding Maier’s life, moving between her street-captured images and talking heads of some of those people who hired her or fell under her care.

The photos themselves are striking snapshots of humanity – often collected by Maier in the downbeat areas of Chicago, with a reluctant child or two in tow. There are thousands of pictures, ranging from down and outs on street corners to children caught in a moment of tears. Captured using a Rolleiflex – a boxy camera that is distinguished by the fact that it is held at waist height while the photographer looks down into the lens from the top of it – this means that the children or those on the street seem to always be on her level, their gaze straight at the camera, while the shots of adults as they walk past loom large and domineeringly in comparison.

As the film progresses and Maloof – who acts as a pleasant, informative guide – begins to peel back Maier’s surprising family history, a more troubled picture also emerges as we learn that she was a packrat, whose bedrooms tended to be filled with massive stacks of old newspapers and who hoarded virtually ever geegaw or receipt stub that came her way. The snapshots offered by the various children who passed through her care also range from those who thought she was terrific to those who believed she was merely eccentric and one or two who found her outright cruel.

What is almost as interesting is the portrait that emerges of people’s opinions of ‘creatives’ or at least the opinions of those represented here, as they adhere strongly to cliches regarding class mobilility and what drives an artist. The idea that this nanny had the tenacity to keep her talent to herself seems to be an affront to many, somehow against an unwritten rule about domestics knowing their place. Someone also asks in wonderment, “What’s the point of taking it if no one sees it?”, as though the idea of Maier enjoying her hobby for its own sake is ludicrous.

Throughout it all there are definitely glimpses of Maier, not least in her own photos – where she often appears in half shadow, or multiple reflection – but questions remain. Maloof, though earnest, has undeniable skin in the game as the owner of Maier’s archive, so it feels as though the levels of ‘mystique’ are intended to remain high – this means, for example, that although it is revealed that two of her former wards paid for her flat in retirement, we never see them talking about it to camera. These sort of empty spaces hang around the edges of the frame of the film and though it’s never less than engaging, there’s a nagging sense of missing out on the bigger picture.



Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) Biography -History- Film. Director: Justin Chadwick









Nelson Mandela is a South African lawyer who joins the African National Congress in the 1940s when the law under the Apartheid system’s brutal tyranny proves useless for his people. Forced to abandon peaceful protest for armed resistance after the Sharpeville Massacre, Mandela pays the price when he and his comrades are sentenced to life imprisonment for treason while his wife, Winnie, is abused by the authorities herself. Over the decades in chains, Mandela’s spirit is unbowed as his struggle goes on in and beyond his captivity to become an international cause. However, as Winnie’s determination hardens over the years into a violent ruthlessness, Nelson’s own stature rises until he becomes the renowned leader of his movement. That status would be put to the test as his release nears and a way must be found to win a peaceful victory that will leave his country, and all its peoples, unstained. Written by Kenneth Chisholm, Sunday 8 September 2013

It’s barely five minutes before the woman starts to wail on the soundtrack. Young men in terry-towels run through the long grass. The sun brushes the lens. He dives into the river a boy, emerges fully-formed as a world leader.

A Long Walk to Freedom lays out the legend ofNelson Mandela in grand, sonorous style. It presents a portrait of the South African freedom fighter that is shot for spectacle. This is a life heavy with significance, pitted with great speeches, backed with swooning orchestration that will climb to an emotional peak just as he addresses the crowd.

Idris Elba plays Mandela from his early days as smoothie lawyer, through his recruitment by the ANC to his arrest, imprisonment and eventual release. Elba makes a convincing statesman – he has the stature, can dummy the gravitas. His take on the icon is respectful and deft. Winnie is played by Naomie Harris, who charges the character with a revolutionary zeal.

The film rushes through Mandela’s life and times. Johannesburg, Sharpeville, Robben Island, freedom. It’s a tick-box check-list of things you should know about the man. An Encarta Encyclopedia article laid out on an epic scale. Time is contracted (we spend 30 minutes in prison; Mandela got 27 years), the greatest hits are rolled out, but there’s nothing that embraces the idea that life makes a man and informs his politics. The day-to-day is lost in the bluster.

It’s tough capturing a life so significant on screen. He revolutionised his country, but it was a long struggle with marginal victories. The film overcompensates. It bellows at you. Tells you apartheid was bad by placing champagne-sipping whites on a balcony and black people down on the streets below. It pumps in the period detail, drops in chunks of news footage to back up its importance. In reality Mandela forced change through by plugging away, by persisting in a long, frustrating struggle. The pace of change was achingly slow. It’s hard not to feel that there’s something in that that’s fundamentally uncinematic.


Hard moral decisions weigh heavily. And in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” Justin Chadwick’s stately screen biography of Nelson Mandela, the British actor Idris Elba conveys the agony as well as the nobility of Mr. Mandela’s quest for South African racial equality. Much of that pain is suppressed rage at the cruelty and injustice of apartheid. As Mr. Mandela looks beyond the fury of the moment and calculates the cost of urging violence, you sense his frustration at having to make the only reasonable choice and taking the high road.

Idris Elba, left, and Naomie Harris in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.

Mr. Elba doesn’t look much like Mr. Mandela. He is considerably beefier. But he has the same sharp, hyper-alert gaze that acknowledges the world’s horrors while looking above and beyond toward a humanitarian ideal. He also captures Mr. Mandela’s distinctive accent with an uncanny accuracy. Mr. Elba is completely convincing as a natural leader with a ferocious drive. He makes you feel the almost unimaginable personal price Mr. Mandela paid by spending 27 years in prison, separated from his family and the anti-apartheid movement on an island off Cape Town. His lowest moment comes when he is forbidden to leave the island to bury his eldest son.

The performances of Mr. Elba and of Naomie Harris — who plays his wife Winnie, a volatile firebrand whose simmering anger can erupt at any moment — give a crucial human dimension to this streamlined, panoramic, would-be epic. The Mandelas are the only significant roles in a movie in which everyone else, including white South African leaders, is a bit player.

“Long Walk to Freedom” sustains the measured, inspirational tone of a grand, historical pageant. Events that are worth films of their own are compressed into a sweeping, generalized history. Gripping, dynamically choreographed scenes of street violence are harrowing but short, as the story hurtles forward at breakneck speed.

If the lack of specifics about politics is frustrating, how could it be otherwise? Mr. Mandela’s biography and South African history are so rich and inextricably linked that it is impossible to reduce it to a nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie without it feeling rushed and incomplete. “Winnie Mandela,” Darrell J. Roodt’s recent much inferior film, in which Mr. Mandela made only brief appearances, had the same problem.

Still, to their credit, Mr. Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) and the screenwriter, William Nicholson, who adapted the script from Mr. Mandela’s autobiography, have created a movie with the flow and grandeur of a traditional Hollywood biopic. “Long Walk to Freedom” barely glosses Mr. Mandela’s youth. We meet him as a teenager in his Xhosa village completing a ritual initiation into manhood.

Minutes later, he is a dashing hot-shot defense lawyer and amateur boxer, whose first wife, Evelyn, leaves him because of his womanizing. He meets his match in Winnie, and they are immediately aware of themselves as a power couple bound together in a common struggle for racial equality.

Mr. Mandela’s dalliance with violence leads to his arrest and sentence of life imprisonment on Robben Island, where he breaks rocks in a quarry. The movie speeds through his prison years, taking just enough time to show the diabolical ways that punishment is meted out and small privileges extended. When he and his fellow African National Congress leaders arrive there, they are obliged to wear shorts. He wages a successful campaign for the prisoners to be given long pants, a symbolic but small victory. That’s how the movie picks and chooses its humanizing moments, and there are enough to keep its tone from seeming stuffily reverent.

“Long Walk to Freedom” warms up once Mr. Mandela is released from prison, warily reunites with Winnie and negotiates an end to apartheid with the white power structure. The compelling scenes of the Mandelas, no longer youthful, bitterly disagreeing over policy and separating, are so powerfully acted that every accusatory glance exchanged by the couple conveys accumulated years of struggle and sacrifice. Intransigently radical, Winnie Mandela endorsed retaliation against black South Africans who collaborated with the apartheid regime. One scene shows a young man about to be burned alive. During this final third, the film comes the closest to shedding its lofty airs.

Mr. Elba’s towering performance lends “Long Walk to Freedom” a Shakespearean breadth. His Mandela is an intensely emotional man whose body quakes in moments of sorrow and whose face is stricken with a bone-deep anguish. The carefully chosen words in his eloquent declarations of principle, spoken with gravity and deliberation, are deeply stirring.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for scenes of intense violence, sexual content and strong language.




Yves Saint Laurent (2014) Film. Biography – Director: Jalil Lespert



JUNE 24, 2014

More dutiful than elegant, “Yves Saint Laurent”is one of two new dramas about that beatified French fashion designer. The other feature, Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month and posits, with flair and humor, a certain sensual mystery about the shy but passionate couturier and his work. Jalil Lespert’s authorized biopic is the first out of the gate in the United States, however, and it trots out a polite recounting of Saint Laurent’s life in its prime. In the Biopic ‘Yves Saint Laurent,’ Fashion From the VaultJUNE 20, 2014

Donning the requisite black-framed glasses, the boyish Pierre Niney plays the wunderkind who was tapped for creative leadership of Dior at the age of 21, ran his own trendsetting fashion house and also struggled through manic-depression. Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne) was his lover, wrangler and business partner, making for a beneficial match that would fray with the stress on both sides. The model Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon) also figures as a friend and mild source of intrigue, though the greater world of fashion feels sketchy.

Mr. Lespert and his screenwriters tend to telegraph what’s happening next with on-the-nose dialogue, leaving behind an orderly but not vividly realized biography (or necessarily a complete one). Paris by the decades is recreated, but without a real sense of life in the air. It’s a film that takes on the mood of Mr. Bergé more than that of the prodigy himself, though the depiction of their relationship is at times poignant, if overly restrained.

The head-turning clothes, including Saint Laurent’s legendary Mondrian numbers, are museum-quality, borrowed for the making of the film (and apparently used for only hours at a time). But you might say the same thing about much of the drama, which feels like a well-appointed exhibition of a life.

A Band Called Death (2012) Film; Documentary – Biography – Music – Directors: Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett



Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was a band called Death. Punk before punk existed, three teenage brothers in the early ’70s formed a band in their spare bedroom, began playing a few local gigs and even pressed a single in the hoped of getting signed. But this was the era of Motown and emerging disco. Record companies found Death’s music – and band name – too intimidating, and the group were never given a fair shot, disbanding before they even completed one album. Equal parts electrifying rockumentary and epic family love story, A Band Called Death chronicles the incredible fairy-tale journey of what happened almost three decades later, when a dusty 1974 demo tape made it way out of the attic and found an audience several generations younger. Playing music impossible ahead of its time, Death is now being credited as the first black punk band (hell…the first punk band!), and are finally receiving their long overdue recognition as true rock pioneers.(Imdb)



By Rob Hunter on June 28, 2013

review band called death


Ask the average person on the street to name the city that saw its walls shake with the birth of punk music and odds are they won’t answer “Detroit.” Ask them to name the band who first mashed the raw and the melodic together to create punk music before the term even existed, and they most assuredly won’t say “Death.” And we won’t even bother asking if anyone knew that the forefathers of punk were African American.

But thanks to the new revelatory and inspiring documentary A Band Called Death, the truth behind the band’s nearly simultaneous birth and death may yet find them their proper place in music history.

There were four Hackney boys growing up in ’70s Detroit, but while the oldest kept himself busy in other ways, his three younger brothers developed a serious interest in music. Bobby, Dannis and David taught themselves bass, drums and guitar, respectively, and then set out to change the sonic landscape. Christened Death by David, their de facto leader, the trio recorded a demo tape only to see door after door shut in their face. For some it was the idea of Black musicians rocking out instead of going the Motown route, but for most it simply came down to the band’s name. As quickly as the flame was lit it was subsequently snuffed out again.

But like a phoenix, Death was destined to rise again, and when the internet came calling thirty five years later, what remained of the Hackney boys were ready.


“And it would happen every time we tell somebody, they’d say well what’s the name of the band, and you know we’d kind of [sigh] do one of those and then we’d tell them the name of the band. We’d get the same old reaction we expected to get. Rejection.”

Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett‘s film is essentially a story in two halves. We first meet Bobby and Dannis as they’re revisiting the street and home they grew up in, telling stories about their childhood and parents. The sons of a pastor, the boys were taught from early on about the importance of family in general and about supporting each other in particular. That lesson was carried into their attempted musical careers and was nowhere more apparent than in the issue of the band’s name. David had chosen it after the boys lost their father to a drunk driver (while their dad was rushing an injured man to the hospital), and while the pressures to change the name were immense and constant David never budged. Which meant his brothers never budged either. Not even an offer from soon to be legendary music producer Clive Davis could sway them, and unwilling to bend or conform the band’s demo tape fell into oblivion.

That the brick wall they faced was due more to their “shocking” name than anything else is both ridiculous and odd seen in the light of today’s world where we have bands with names like Cannibal Corpse, I Set My Friends on Fire, Goatwhore, and Death Cab for Cutie.

That first section is made eminently watchable thanks to the brothers’ charisma, positivity and contagious personalities. The oldest brother, Earl, recounts some familial anecdotes and chases each of them with the most honest laughter you’ve ever heard. The band dissolved quickly and quietly, followed by Bobby and Dannis’ spur of the moment move from Detroit to Burlington. The two changed musical styles, found minor success as a reggae band, started families and went on with their lives.

It’s the film’s second half where all of the magic happens. The details of Death’s rebirth in 2008 are best discovered by watching the film, but know that it involved dozens of complete strangers including college students, obsessive record collectors, and renowned musicians like Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins. Most surprisingly, and a source of much of the film’s heart and affection, the story also required the unwitting presence of Bobby’s own three sons. The eldest’s recollection of discovering that not only were his dad and uncles in a punk band but that their songs were now being played at underground parties is a smile-inducing joy to watch.

A Band Called Death‘s biggest fault is an uncontrollable one and therefore no real fault at all: it’s made repeatedly clear that David was the heart and driving force behind the band, and his absence here feels all the bigger because of it. He died well before the band’s music was rediscovered, but as Bobby recalls, David was always convinced that day would come.

There’s no such thing as resurrection in the real world, but through Death’s rebirth David has managed the next best thing. And in the age of the internet the Hackney boys can expect to be playing together for many, many years to come.


In the early 1970s, three teenage African American brothers–David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney–formed a band called Death and played “hard-drivin’ rock & roll”–really, a precursor to punk rock, pre-dating pioneering black punk band Bad Brains by about five years–across their hometown of Detroit. They didn’t get far–their only single rarely got airplay and the unreleased master tapes for their debut album sat unheard in a dusty attic in Detroit for nearly thirty-five years.

A BAND CALLED DEATH, directed by Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, chronicles the Hackney brothers’ story, from their early years playing instruments purchased with a family insurance settlement in a cramped room in their parents’ house to the band’s rediscovery and eventual revival several decades after the band called it quits. It’s a story about family, faith, and a commitment to a singular divinely inspired artistic vision–one that took the world over thirty years to appreciate.

Now considered visionaries, Death never found any real success in their own time. They had a lot working against them: everyone hated the name (David’s refusal to change it cost the band a record deal); nobody understood their vision (a group of black kids playing punk was unheard of); radio DJs wouldn’t spin Death’s self-released 45 (they didn’t have a full-length record out and their music was overshadowed by the disco tsunami that swept the nation.) Eventually it became too much for the Hackneys to endure, and after several years of disappointment, Death broke up in 1977. “I honestly think that it was almost a wrong place at the wrong time scenario, unfortunately,” Covino said in an interview after the film’s premiere.

Years passed, and Death’s 1974 demos gathered dust in the Hackney’s attic. Bobby and Dannis moved onto other music projects while David struggled with alcoholism and eventually succumbed to lung cancer in 2000. But all of a sudden, word of the band’s only single–“Politicians in my Eye” b/w “Keep On Knocking”–spread over the Internet, and a couple persistent record collectors in complete awe of this history-changing discovery tracked down one of the very few original 45s and brought it to the attention of music historians, label owners, and punk fans all over the world. One night at an underground party, one of Bobby’s sons heard the record and immediately recognized his father’s voice. Then, as David had predicted so many years ago, the world did indeed come looking for those master tapes, and Death was resurrected over thirty years after their heyday. Indie label Drag City released their debut album …For the Whole World to See in 2008.

A Band Called Death is an incredibly thoughtful and compelling film, one of the best music documentaries to come out in years. Covino and Howlett tell Death’s story through archival footage, recent concert clips, and intimate interviews with the Hackneys and the megastar musicians in awe of them (Henry Rollins, Kid Rock, and Questlove sing Death’s praises). It gets tough to watch at times–you can feel the horrible pain Bobby still experiences when he recounts the Death episode and his brother’s death. But you can also feel his pride as he watches his sons play David’s old songs in front of an audience for the first time and see his happiness when he realizes how proud David would be that Death is finally getting their due. A Band Called Death is not to be missed–keep an eye out for another opportunity to catch this fantastic film.

by Justin Lowe

Detroit — renowned home of Motown — isn’t the first touchstone associated with punk rock, despite its distinction for producing Death, regarded as the first African-American punk band. While countless docs attempt to make the case for near-forgotten musicians, Death’s unique place in musical history and the fascinating turns the band’s story takes as it winds its way out of obscurity present a promising opportunity for a proactive theatrical or home-entertainment distributor.

The Hackney brothers – David, Bobby and Dannis – started out playing rock and funk as teenagers, rehearsing at their Detroit home with the encouragement of their parents. Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper and The Who, oldest brother David started leading the band in the direction of harder rock and their sound gradually became more hardcore, taking on the characteristics of prototypical punk rock as the band adopted their fateful name.

Incredibly they secured a recording contract with their first demo tapes, laying down the tracks for their debut full-length “…For the World To See” in a Motor City studio in 1975. Ironically, the music world never heard the album in that incarnation, after their representatives failed to sell the disc to a distribution company. Arista Records’ Clive Davis did offer to release the recording, but only if the band changed their name, which David flatly refused to do. “If we give them the name of our band, we might as well give then everything else,” he reportedly told his brothers.

With their contract cancelled, the Hackneys attempted to self-distribute singles on 45s, but radio stations passed them over and with the pressing and marketing costs, the brothers were soon broke and forced to sell off their instruments. Bobby and Dannis relocated to Vermont and formed the successful reggae band Lambsbread, while David remained in Detroit, plagued by his demons and advancing alcoholism, dying of cancer in 2000.

Conventionally the narrative would wrap up with Death being rediscovered and promoted online by an avid record collector, but instead the film takes a couple more unlikely turns. With the master tapes that David gave Bobby for safekeeping, Drag City finally released “…For the World To See” in 2009 and after nearly 30 years of obscurity, people started giving the group some long overdue attention.

Although filmmakers Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino rely primarily on a series of generous and introspective interviews with Dannis, Bobby and other family members, along with archival photos and memorabilia, segments featuring Cooper, Henry Rollins and Kid Rock among others demonstrate Death’s visceral appeal. More than any other factor though, it’s the surviving Hackney brothers’ emotional and enthusiastic reminiscences that prove the most riveting material in the film, particularly their recollections of David and his central role in forming and guiding the band.

The film’s final twist, revealing how the band’s songs are being played live for the first time in decades, proves a moving testament to the enduring power of family ties and groundbreaking music.

A BAND CALLED DEATH tells at least three different stories, and all of them are earth-shakingly profound.  The first is historical:  The story of Death is a pivotal story in the history of punk music.  Death, a rock band in Detroit in the early 1970s, was only recently rediscovered by musicians and journalists, but they are tremendously significant.  Three of the four Hackney brothers, David (guitar), Dannis (drums), and Bobby (vocals & bass), were sons of a minister who originally played R&B music, but switched to rock n’ roll after witnessing the baroque showmanship of Alice Cooper and the go-for-broke musicianship of Pete Townshend.

Culturally speaking, some of the fascination surrounding Death concerns the not-insignificant fact that these were three young black men playing with energy and urgency in a typically white milieu.  Their sound was faster and louder than most rock n’ roll of the era, having far more in common with groups like Iggy & The Stooges and The MC5 than with rock bands like The Beatles or The Who, let alone The Isley Brothers or any other band whom America might have expected them to sound like.


Death was unprecedented and therefore they were difficult to classify at the time.  As Questlove from The Roots notes in the film, Death was doing The Ramones before The Ramones got around to it.  As Vernon Reid from Living Colour notes, there was no doubt in Death’s sound.  There was a confidence and a sureness to it.  As Bobby and Dannis Hackney, the surviving members of the band, tell it, this sense of purpose came from their younger brother David, who named the band, designed their logo, and wrote all the songs.  With humility that nonetheless sounds cogent and objective, Bobby and Dannis repeatedly credit David with the foresight, integrity, and creativity that powered the band.  All you have to do is listen to the music to hear that it has a fiery timelessness.  Bobby and Dannis suggest that the price tag on integrity can be expensive — David turned down a life-changing record deal because he wouldn’t buckle to pressure to reconsider the band’s name, which was off-putting to some but had tremendous significance to David.  More on that in a moment.

Documentary directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino juggle multiple stories and themes with tremendous acuity — A BAND CALLED DEATH is engagingly designed on a visual level, and it has a momentum to match the music soundtracking it.  Their film is relaying a footnote of major significance to American music history — Death’s music feels genuinely important in the grand scheme — and yet the film manages to track the human story with uncommon grace and power.  David Hackney is a powerful presence in the documentary, despite only appearing in still photographs and in recordings of his voice and music.  David was a troubled soul but by all accounts, a beautiful one.  He believed in the music he and his brothers were creating and he has been proved right on all counts by retrospect.  This is the second story the documentary tells, the emotional story.  After passing up the record company deal, the brothers put out a limited independent release of their songs, but Death never quite caught on and at some point they chose to move on.  Dannis and Bobby started a reggae band called Lambsbread, and David eventually succumbed to lung cancer.

Around five years ago, some crate-diggers (including Jello Biafra) started passing the scarce copies of Death records around.  Some of the songs hit the music blogs, at which point the New York Times came calling.  (This is where I, and many other music fiends, first heard the standout track “Politicians In My Eyes.”)  More amazingly, Bobby Hackney’s sons, Julian, Urian, and Bobby Jr., musicians in their own right, were so moved to hear their father and uncles on record playing some of the fiercest rock ever, and toured the country covering Death’s songs in a band called Rough Francis (a tribute to one of their uncle David’s nicknames).  I know I’m doing an inordinate amount of recapping here, but the point I wanted to make by doing it is that these are clearly wonderful kids, this is clearly a wonderful family.  I was so touched by this aspect of the movie — the emotion, the beauty of family.  Family will save you.  Family will redeem you.  Julian and Bobby and Urian brought their uncle David to victory ten years after he died.  What is more beautiful than that?  As Brian Spears, a simpatico record executive, points out in the film (and trailer), there just aren’t any other stories like this one.  It’s truly transcendent.

And that is the third of A BAND CALLED DEATH‘s stories — the spiritual side.  David Hackney named the band Death not to intimidate or to shock, as many may have assumed.  The band’s music was emphatic, but not aggressive.  David named the band Death with a redemptive goal in mind, seeing as how the notion of death carries such negativity in so many minds.  Essentially, he wanted the awesomeness of the band and the conspicuousness of its name to do nothing less than to frame the notion of death in positive terms.  Like birth, it’s a thing that happens to all of us.  Like birth, it’s an aspect of existence we have absolutely no control over.  David Hackney seemed to be a tormented genius, but he had an uncanny perceptiveness.  His brothers recount how he accurately predicted his own death, but also how he accurately predicted that one day the world would come looking for Death’s music.  He was right, and he was right.  At press time, Dannis and Bobby are back in the game and Death lives again. A BAND CALLED DEATH is a movie that communicates actual spiritual redemption.  It challenges your very perception of a natural occurrence, the end of life, and as such it has the power to inspire.  You don’t have to be religious to believe in that.



While attending the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash in 2009, I noticed the headlining band was called Death. That doesn’t make any sense, I thought. The only band I know called Death is a death-metal band and that band is no more. What’s going on here? I soon found out when the proto-punk band Death performed for one of the first times since 1977. By the end of the first song, the crowd was cheering its approval. Later as the singer of opening band Rough Francis joined them for a song, it was revealed he was the son of Death’s singer/bass player, Bobby Hackney. So a whole familial rock ‘n’ roll story unfolded during the course of a concert set. One of those rare times, when an audience knew absolutely nothing about a band at the beginning of the night and were bonafide fans by the end of the set.

band called deathIn the early 1970s, David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, three African-American brothers from Detroit, wanted to replicate the hard-rock sound guitar sounds of Alice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who. They formed a band and group leader David gave it the improbable name Death.  With their Mom’s blessing, the teens practiced three hours a day in a bedroom converted into a studio and subsequently recorded and shopped a demo.  By 1977, that dream was over – for a few decades anyway.

Filmmakers Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino documented the journey of the Hackney brothers in A Band Called Death, which premiered last month at the L.A. Film Festival. The band’s original demos from 1974 were released as For the Whole World to See in 2009 on Chicago-based Drag City Records. The filmmakers use a combination of interviews, archival clips, and most notably, footage of Bobby and Dannis returning to their family house in Detroit, revisiting their old practice space, kept intact by their Mom all these decades later.   We hear cassette tapes of David, the group’s prankster and visionary, pontificating and playing jokes on friends and family, and hear some of the band’s raw, pre-punk demos.

The music itself has that proto-punk, hard rock/punk rock sound of other Detroit bands of that era like the Stooges, MC5, and early Alice Cooper. Still, Death’s rediscovery has triggered praise from all types of musicians (Henry Rollins and Kid Rock are among the artists contributing commentary throughout the film.) Even in the early 1970s, the music execs who heard Death’s demo all agreed on the band’s talent, but their distaste for the name and the musical climate of the time quashed the band’s chances at success.  Clive Davis wanted to sign the band, but after David refused to change the name, the deal fell through. The brothers pressed 500 copies of a 45 RPM record – “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knockin’” in 1976. The single gained little interest and the band called it quits in 1977.

Shortly thereafter, the brothers had relocated to Vermont and formed a gospel group. Dannis and Bobby still live in Vermont with their families. They’ve fronted a popular local reggae band, Lambsbread, since the early 1980s. David returned to Detroit with his wife in 1982, writing and recording until he died of lung cancer in 2000. Before he passed away, he told his brother Bobby to keep Death demos because “one day the world would come looking for it.”

And David was right. By the early 2000s, the Internet and record collectors were abuzz over sightings of the rare 45s and copies ultimately wound up in the hands of  a prominent record collector in Chicago. The young record collectors treated the Death single as more or less the holy grail of obscure rock records. And, more amazingly, Bobby’s son, Bobby Jr. (Rough Francis singer), heard one of Death’s songs at a friend’s party and recognized his Dad’s voice. It was the first time he had heard his Dad’s (and uncles’) former band.

Around the same time, a record collector bought one of the old DIY singles for $800. As word of the Death single spread through the indie music grapevine, Drag City and Mickey Leigh (Joey Ramone’s brother) and others contacted Bobby Sr. and after 35 years, Death got their record deal.

Writer/directors Howlett and Covino let the film unravel naturally, not forcing it into any particular direction or viewpoint.  A Band Called Death is not merely a documentary about music industry travails. This film is more about family bonds, perseverance, and where life’s never-ending twists and turns can lead.




A Short Stay in Switzerland (2009) Film. Director : Simon Curtis




The Guardian, Monday 26 January 2009 

Nobody wants to see Julie Walters die. It would be preferable, in fact, for her not to pass away at all. The rambunctious Rita, the marvellous Mrs Overall and Harry Potter’s Molly Weasley (a role still awaiting affectionate alliteration), she has contributed too much to the national life for us to contemplate her being taken away. So actually to watch Julie Walters die – painfully, gruesomely, protractedly, over the course of 90 minutes on primetime television – is a thoroughly disquieting experience. And that, of course, was the point of A Short Stay in Switzerland (Sunday, BBC1).

Walters plays Dr Anne Turner, who watches her husband die of a degenerative illness, only to be diagnosed shortly afterwards with an even more rapacious condition herself. Faced with the prospect of enduring the same descent into incapacity, she decides to kill herself and, ultimately, is assisted in doing so in Geneva, where the practice is legal.

Director Simon Curtis strains to make his drama, which is based on a true story, as lifelike as possible: the real Turner was followed to Switzerland by the BBC and, in a moment of historical authenticity (or, perhaps, cross-promotion), the reporter Fergus Walsh plays himself here. Watch the news footage of Turner’s death and you will notice that the decor of the small apartment in which she dies has been meticulously recreated, while the colour scheme throughout is muted, the washed-out blues of Britain in winter. But it was in the dying that this drama aspired most to realism.

The central half hour of A Short Stay in Switzerland is one of the most harrowing I have seen on television for some time. It begins with Walters experiencing a mild palsy and continues downward without relenting, from falls to paralysis to choking fits, until we see her trying to kill herself, frenetically sucking the dregs of air from a plastic bag around her face, a pharmacological drool spilling from her lips.

This is enough to convince Turner’s three children that the right thing to do is to help their mother end her life. Played with variable degrees of effectiveness by Stephen Campbell Moore, Lyndsey Marshal and Liz White, each of the children is an archetype. White is the thrusting media worker who thinks only of herself, Marshal the fully-grown child, Campbell Moore the caring, sensitive homosexual, who intuits his mother’s needs from the start.

It’s through their conversion that we, too, are supposed to see the need for legalised euthanasia.

There is one exception to this conversion: Turner’s best friend Clare, played by Harriet Walter. Clare is of the mind that she is selfish for wishing to end it all, that she must think of her children and that, ultimately, life is sacred. So offended is Clare that she offers to pray for Turner, an offer that is accepted “if it makes you feel better”. The irrationality of Clare’s religious belief stops her from seeing the truth about her friend’s condition, her dogma so strict she even spurns Turner’s conciliatory suicide note with a lofty toss of her nose.

Ultimately, it’s this whiff of polemic that stops A Short Stay in Switzerland from being as powerful as its creators wish it to be; and it’s the performance from Walters that redeems it from being a simple diatribe. She provides the human nuance that is lacking, both in Frank McGuinness’s script and elsewhere. Her last-minute confession – “I have broken [my children’s] hearts by dying” – is invested with a multitude of emotions: regret, confusion and, ultimately and most powerfully, fear.


By Benji Wilson

26 Jan 2009

In among the sniffles and crumpled Kleenex, a terrible, probably sackable thought occurred to me while watching Julie Walters playing a doctor careering towards a brutal, lonely death. The older Walters gets, and the more wincingly tragic roles she plays, the harder it is to forget her greatest role – as the dotty cleaner Mrs Overall on Acorn Antiques, the spoof soap opera from Victoria Wood’s 1980s sketch show.

This proved highly problematic during A Short Stay in Switzerland(BBC1), a true-life one-off drama that was precision-engineered to tug at every one of your heartstrings until it caused some kind of aortic putsch. Walters played Anne Turner, a strong-willed doctor from Bath. First, she watched her husband die of a rare, belligerent neurological condition, and then, even as she scattered his ashes, she discovered that she had the same illness, but a worse variant. As a GP she was all too aware of what was happening, as well as her powerlessness to do anything about it. She made up her mind almost immediately, gathering her devoted children to announce her decision: “suicide”.

Initially, though it made you feel dirty to think it, Walters’s redoubtable doctor, prone to sudden mood swings because of her illness, was a dead ringer for Overall. As her children fell apart in a very middle-class way, their mother never wavered in her determination to kill herself. But you did keep wondering when she might appear in a cross-neck pinny and wrinkly tights to offer everyone a coconut macaroon.

Such shameful giggling lasted only until the moment when the film jumped forward a year or two, to reveal the effects of the disease on Turner. All of the things that made her who she was – work, tennis, her body, her speech – had been relentlessly chiselled away. “I will soon be unable to physically say, ‘enough’,” read the last line in a letter she dictated begging for admission to a Swiss clinic, where they would allow her to make it stop.

Two scenes followed of the sort that demand inclusion in the long-term mental scrapbook. The first was loud, a slanging match with a best friend who thought her choice was pure cowardice. The second was silent, as she applied her make-up with her two daughters before going off to die. The first scene put the arguments for assisted suicide yea and nay. The other was a two-minute visual definition of human dignity, reminding us that though it takes courage to go on living, it also takes courage to die.

A little chastened, the evening’s viewing then went completely haywire in the form of Generation Kill (FX), a new Iraq War mini-series from the makers of the acclaimed US cop show The Wire. In it, we are effectively embedded with Bravo Company, First Recon Marines, as they lead the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Brash, lewd, loud and lethal, if the Marines weren’t exactly ideal dinner party guests, we were encouraged to believe that they hadn’t been brought up for polite society: “We’re like America’s little pit bull,” said one. “They beat it, starve it, mistreat it, and once in a while they let it out to attack somebody.”

Just as they did with The Wire, Generation Kill’s creators have clearly decided to take whatever is the TV equivalent of Fowler’s English Usageand shred it. If you want clear characterisation, audible dialogue and music to signal when to laugh and when to cry, well, you picked the wrong unit.

The first episode consisted mainly of First Recon hanging about at a Kuwaiti base camp, waiting for the war to start (a moment signalled by the arrival of lorry loads of morale-boosting pizza). Once it did, the best description of events was a total “snafu” – one of the few military acronyms not in the script. If you don’t know it, look it up: it encapsulates what Generation Kill is all about.

Even as the Humvees rolled north, it still required a hastily-scribbled First Recon family tree to try to establish who all these people were. It didn’t help that they all had nicknames and one of them was called Person.

By the end of the episode, however, a useful rule-of-thumb had emerged – if they forgot to pass on crucial information, if they resolutely failed to learn from their mistakes and if they then blamed them on their men, they were probably in charge.

War is chaos, and so was Generation Kill. We have to trust that its creators know what they’re doing, and follow them in to battle, but the message from episode one seemed to be that if you don’t know what’s going on, don’t worry – neither did the Marines.


By Michael Deacon

23 Jan 2009

Assisted suicide is one of the most divisive issues of our time. Last month the little-watched Sky Real Lives channel made front-page news by broadcasting footage of the assisted suicide of Craig Ewart, a terminally ill American, at the Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas. In October it was reported that Daniel James, a 23-year-old English rugby player who had been paralysed in an on-field accident, had travelled to Switzerland to die the same way. His parents, who told the press he had a “right to die”, accompanied him to the clinic; no charges were brought against them.

So BBC1’s new one-off drama A Short Stay in Switzerland couldn’t be more timely. Based on a true story, it stars Julie Walters as Anne Turner, a retired English doctor who in 2006 decided to take her own life at Dignitas because she could no longer bear to live with supranuclear palsy, an incurable degenerative disease.

“I did wonder whether I should take the part, because I could see it was going to be really painful,” says Walters. “But then I thought, ‘No, this is a subject that ought to be debated, so I’ll give it a go.'”

Walters is keen to point out that the drama has its “lighter moments”: “Anne Turner had a great sense of humour, so she tended to punctuate painful stuff with jokes.” But she says playing the part was emotionally gruelling.

“There’s a scene at the end where she has to say goodbye to her children and she takes the barbiturate [to kill herself],” says Walters. “Once I’d read that in the script for the first time, I couldn’t read it again. I thought, ‘I’ll just have to learn the lines for the scene on the day.'”

For decades Walters used to suffer sleep problems, eased only a few years ago by acupuncture and hypnotherapy. While she was filming, the problems returned.

“Every night I slept badly,” she says. “And I couldn’t sleep for whole nights afterwards. I was prostrate for about three weeks.

I did get up to cook meals but I’d say to Grant [her husband], ‘I’m going to bed for the afternoon.'”

A Short Stay in Switzerland was difficult to act in and at times, it’s difficult to watch, too. But then, assisted suicide is a difficult subject for drama to tackle: the risk of the script sliding into some form of moralistic propaganda is high. But Walters insists that the film has no “political message”.

“It’s just telling her story and opening the debate,” she says. “You see both sides of it. Yes, Anne would have liked the law in this country changed, and she says that in no uncertain terms. But the other arguments are in there too. The main thing is to open up the debate, that’s what we’re aiming for. We’re not trying to say, ‘Oh yes, everybody, you should all enrol with Dignitas.'”

Her own views on the issue (whether assisted suicide can be morally justified, whether it sh2ould be legalised in this country) are complicated.

On the one hand, she “totally” believes, like Turner did, that people have a “right to die”. On the other hand, she doesn’t want a situation where the vulnerable could be coerced into an assisted suicide, and isn’t sure whether it could be legalised in this country without putting them at risk.

“The vulnerable need to be protected as well,” she says. “But I think [assisted suicide] was right for Anne. She was informed, independent and intelligent, she was in no way coerced.”

Preparing for the part, Walters talked at length to Turner’s children. Four years before their mother made her decision, they’d seen their father die, in misery and pain, from a similar illness to hers.

“All three said that, out of the two deaths, hers was the one they could cope with much better,” says Walters. “They felt that [by supporting her] they’d carried out her wishes.” The three have already seen the finished drama, she adds: “At the end they were all obviously crying. They were really lovely – they said I was their mother.”

A Short Stay in Switzerland is an overwhelmingly different proposition to the last thing many of us saw Walters in: the Abba musical Mamma Mia!. She’s always been acclaimed for her versatility. In her 35-year acting career she’s done sketch comedy (Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV), children’s blockbusters (the Harry Potter series), uplifting drama (Educating Rita) and biopic (she played Mary Whitehouse on BBC2 last year), among other genres.

But she plans to work less. Though only 58, she thinks about retiring: “Constantly. I’m tired. A Short Stay… was knackering. The way I relax is I think, ‘I haven’t got anything coming up.’ I like to know there are months ahead when I’ve got nothing.”

If she were to quit acting, millions would miss her. There’s even a petition on Facebook demanding that she be made a dame.

“In a pantomime?” she says, laughing. She was made a CBE last year, but wouldn’t like to guess whether the higher honour will come her way: “It’s not something that greatly troubles me, I have to say. I remember Alan Bennett saying, ‘I couldn’t be a Sir, it’d be like having to wear a suit every day of your life.’ I kind of know what he means.”




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