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.



American Teen (2008) Documentary Film. Director: Nanette Burstein




Roger Ebert

July 30, 2008

“American Teen” observes a year in the life of four high school seniors in Warsaw, Ind. It is presented as a documentary, and indeed these students, their friends and families are all real people, and these are their stories. But many scenes seem suspiciously staged. Why would Megan, the “most popular” girl in school, allow herself to be photographed spreading toilet paper on a lawn and spray-painting “FAG” on the house window of a classmate? Is she really that unaware? She’s the subject of disciplinary action in the film; why didn’t she tell school officials that she only did it for the movie?

Many questions like that occur while you’re watching “American Teen,” but once you make allowance for the factor of directorial guidance, the movie works effectively as what it wants to be: a look at these lives, in this town (“mostly middle-class, white and Christian”), at this time.


The director is Nanette Burstein, whose credits include “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” She spent a year in Warsaw, reportedly shot 1,000 hours of footage, and focused on four students who represent segments of the high school population.

Megan Krizmanich is pretty, on the school council, a surgeon’s daughter, “popular” but sometimes considered a bitch. She dreams of going to Notre Dame, as her father, a brother and a sister did. She seems supremely self-confident until late in the film, when we learn about a family tragedy that her mother blames for her “buried anger.”

Colin Clemens, with a Jay Leno chin, is the basketball star. His dad has a sideline as an Elvis impersonator (pretty good, too). The family doesn’t have the money to send him to college, so everything depends on winning an athletic scholarship, a fact he is often reminded of. He doesn’t have a star personality, is a nice guy, funny.

Hannah Bailey is the girl who wants to get the hell out of Warsaw. She dreams of studying film in San Francisco. Her parents warn her of the hazards of life for a young girl alone in the big city, but she doesn’t want to spend her life at a 9-to-5 job she hates. “This is my life,” she firmly tells her parents. She also goes into a deep depression when a boyfriend breaks up with her, and misses so many days of school as a result that she is threatened with not graduating.

And Jake Tusing is the self-described nerd, band member, compulsive video game player, who decorates his room with an array of stuffed, framed or mounted animals. He has a bad case of acne, which is a refreshing touch, since so many movie teenagers seem to escape that universal problem.

During this year, a guy will break up with his girl by cell phone. A topless photo of a girl will be circulated via the Internet and cell phone to everyone in school and, seemingly, in the world. Megan will make a cruel phone call to the girl. Romances will bloom and crash. Crucial basketball games will be played. And the focus will increasingly be on what comes next: college or work? Warsaw or the world?

Warsaw Community High School, with its sleek modern architecture, seems like a fine school, but we don’t see a lot of it. Most of the scenes take place in homes, rec rooms, basements, fast-food restaurants, basketball games and school dances (curiously, hardly anyone in the film smokes, although one girl says she does). We begin to grow familiar with the principals and their circles, and start to care about them; there’s a certain emotion on graduation day.

“American Teen” isn’t as penetrating or obviously realistic as her “On the Ropes,” but Burstein (who won best director at Sundance 2008) has achieved an engrossing film. No matter what may have been guided by her outside hand, it is all in some way real, and often touching.



The Guardian, Friday 6 March 2009

Like Anvil, the recent movie about failing Canadian rockers, this study of a group of American teenagers in their final year of high school is on the mocu-documentary borderline. Is it for real – or not? Well, it is supposed to be real. Film-maker Nanette Burstein has followed five teenagers over 10 months as they prepare for adulthood. One’s a jock, one’s a nerd, one’s a bitch-princess, and so on. Some things in it do look very authentic indeed, like one boy’s acne. Yet there’s an awful lot here which is simply too good, too dramatically shaped, to be true. Throughout the film I had a nagging sense that it simply had to be a hoax. One girl is a indie-chick outsider and wannabe film student – in a fiction feature, she would obviously be the director’s autobiographical persona – and her boyfriend breaks up with her by text. We see the text in closeup. Ouch. Was that for real? The princess vandalises a rival’s home: this scene really does look staged, or at least reconstructed. Or maybe it’s simply that the teens involved were getting a sixth sense of what was going to look good on camera. Perhaps documentary film-making has become so self-conscious that the grammar of spoof has become overwhelmingly influential. Either way, this film was for me marred by the persistent suspicion that the director wasn’t being entirely straight with us.



  March 9 – 2009  

American Teen turns fact into fiction

Documentaries can impose on those who appear in them a narrative all of their ownScreen entertainment has presented us with a familiar version of what goes on in the typical American high school. Engaging youngsters conforming to a small range of heartwarming stereotypes grapple with hopes, dreams, jealousy, infatuation, rejection and disappointment, but nothing more serious. By prom night, they’ve overcome their troubles, put their mistakes behind them and readied themselves for the challenges of American adulthood.

It’s a vision that plays well enough on screen, but what about the reality? In real life, surely things must be a little more complicated, troubling and uncertain. Should you want to know the truth, you may have been looking forward to American Teen, a big-budget, Sundance-garlanded documentary that purports to lay bare the facts.

Yet, guess what! The facts turn out to be much the same as the fiction … only more so. Nanette Burstein’s portrait of 10 months in the life ofWarsaw Community High School, Indiana, unveils not just the characters we know so well already, but the self-same stories too.

Here be the bitchy princess, the jock, the geek, the rebel and the heartthrob. Popular but bullying Megan overreaches herself with a nasty prank that threatens her otherwise glittering future. However, a sad family secret explains away her dark side and redemption quickly follows. To get to college, Colin needs a basketball scholarship. Overeager, he hogs the hoop, wrecking his team’s and his own prospects. A wise old coach intervenes; Colin learns to pass to his teammates and therein finds salvation.

Documentary this may be, but it finds no room for downers such as drug mishaps, abortions or social diseases. All that distinguishes its heroes from their fictional counterparts is that one of them is allowed to have acne. So, has Hollywood been telling it just like it is? Is teen life stateside just a more exciting version of The Breakfast Club?

Before accepting that this must be so, we should perhaps take note of certain details. Burstein didn’t settle upon her slice of life at random. She painstakingly extracted her final 95 minutes from 1,000 hours of footage. The film’s five stars were selected through carefully staged auditions. Upon what basis?

“They all had a good story,” Burstein explained to the LA Times, “so I felt I had all these strong narrative arcs I could follow that were saying something larger.” It had to be this way, if she was to achieve her purpose. “I want to entertain people; I want to move them in the same way a fiction film would.”

Imagine you’re a Warsaw high-schooler turning up for your audition. You’ll suss out what Burstein’s after in around two seconds. If you want your 15 minutes of fame, and you must certainly do, you’d better make sure that your story matches her needs. If you’re selected, you’ll adapt your behaviour to suit the required narrative without even thinking about it.

Psychologists regard the desire to conform to “demand characteristics”as a “confounding variable” that can wreck an experiment. It is known as“Hawthorne effect”: it causes human behaviour, like that of subatomic particles, to change simply because it is being observed.

Certainly, American Teen offers its audiences an unintended diversion. You can spend the whole time trying to guess which of the film’s many photogenic key developments would actually have occurred if the cameras hadn’t been present. Would that girl really have emailed that fateful photo of her breasts? Would that boy have ditched his sweetheart by text message? How many of all those tears would actually have been shed?

In recent years, conventional fiction has been losing its appeal. We’ve grown a bit bored with it: after all, it’s just made-up stuff. Hence the vogue for authenticity that’s brought us so many misery memoirs, WAGs’ autobiographies and reality TV shows. Nonetheless, we still crave the narrative drive, clear-cut characters and moral certainties that fiction has always delivered. Exercises such as American Teen are trying to square this circle.

Last week, The Class offered us real people playing fictionalised versions of themselves in what was presented as a drama. This week we’ve a documentary in which real people play versions of themselves that may also have been modified. Both films blur the boundary between fact and fiction in an attempt to get the best of both.

We should expect more such ventures. Maybe we should welcome them. Yet we’ll need to keep an ever closer eye on what exactly it is that we’re being offered. Stories are seductive and compelling, but the truth is messy and uncertain. If we allow ourselves to be led into mistaking the one for the other, we’re likely to live to regret it.







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.




Red Obsession (2013) Documentary /History Film.Directors: David Roach, Warwick Ross



For centuries, Bordeaux has assumed a mythical status in the world of fine wine as a leitmotif of wealth, power and influence, but its prosperity has always been linked to the capricious nature of markets and the shifting fortunes of global economies. Now change is coming to Bordeaux, with traditional customers like the US and the UK falling away, as China’s new rich push prices to stratospheric levels. The demand is unprecedented, but the product is finite and this new client wants it all. Will the China market be the bubble that never bursts or the biggest threat yet to Bordeaux’s centuries old reputation?(Imdb)


Sheila O’Malley

September 6, 2013

When the CEOs and proprietors of the great wine chateaux in the Bordeaux region of France talk about what they do in “Red Obsession,” a new documentary directed by David Roach and Warwick Ross, they sound like poets and mystics. One says that you “need to bring so much love to your vineyard.” Standing amidst the vines, another says, “There’s a vibration here.” One speaks of having a visceral sense of the history of the area, of the early ancestors who figured out the proper way to bring the grapes to fruition. Narrated by Russell Crowe, “Red Obsession” takes us through the background of the wine-producing capital of the world, its history, its dependence on capricious elements (like the weather, the global economy), and the challenges facing the area due to rising prices and crumbling markets.

“Red Obsession” opens with an elegant tracking shot of a dark warehouse filled with wooden barrels, as Joss Stone moans “I Put a Spell On You.” It’s sexy, a fitting opening for a film about obsession, about wine-mania, about people who live, breathe, eat, think, drink wine. The footage of Bordeaux is awe-inspiring, with aerial shots of the great chateaux and the vineyards. Closeups of the labels from the different chateaux abound, along with luscious shots of glimmering wine being poured. The obsessive nature of the entire industry is reflected in these shots, a good marriage of theme and form.

Through interviews with wine journalists and chateaux proprietors (including Francis Ford Coppola), we learn about the business, its ups and downs, its competitions. Journalists talk about how difficult it is to describe wine, even though it is their business to do so, and they too sound like poets or mystics. “A wine is like a voice, an instrument with a timbre…” The chateaux work with the journalists, holding wine-tastings of each new vintage, waiting for the verdict. The proprietors of the chateaux are clearly international businesspeople in one respect, but in another respect they are farmers, who understand that you have good years and bad years. Much is out of your control. The pressure is enormous to keep producing stellar wines, but when you are dealing with nature you cannot always guarantee the results. One of the real issues in recent years is that the prices of the bottles of wine have risen so astronomically that they have become too valuable to drink. People now buy bottles of wine as investments, rather than something to be shared at a special occasion.

The economic collapse of 2008 and 2009 has impacted the Bordeaux region in an immediate way. Americans stopped buying expensive wine en masse, and up until then America was the major market for Bordeaux wines. But another market has exploded, almost overnight, in China. The second half of the film is devoted to the wine-mania in China, the cutthroat wine auctions in Hong Kong, the entrepreneur (he made his fortune in sex toys) whose wine collection is worth 60 million US dollars.

Bordeaux wine-manufacturers may talk like poets and mystics but they are practical people of trade, and recognized that China was a new market with unlimited possibilities. The cities in China are shown with a frenetic speeded-up film, lights buzzing along the highways and glittering off and on in the skyscrapers, quite a different dynamic from the stately footage of Bordeaux. Wine is going for such high prices in China that the folks back in Bordeaux are concerned. The prices are becoming divorced from reality, a clear sign that a speculative bubble may be forming. This is a controversial issue, and the talking heads, Chinese and French, argue it out from across the globe.

The narration is simply done, providing us with the necessary context to understand the interconnectedness of this world, its history, its reliance on weather, politics and trade agreements. Informative though it may be, “Red Obsession” is a moody and emotional piece of work. Clouds race over the French chateaux, clouds of change. Obsession keeps Bordeaux in business, but obsession can be unreliable. What happens if China loses its interest in wine and moves on to something else?

Coppola describes the experience of drinking a glass of Chateau Margaux that was bottled four years after the French Revolution. It was a profound experience. He wonders if Lafayette had had a glass of it. He wonders if maybe Thomas Jefferson, a famous wine-lover and wine-obsessive, had had a glass. The glass of wine connected Coppola to those earlier times. “Wine tells a story,” he says.




The Beckoning Silence (2007) Documentary Film.Director: Louise Osmond




In The Beckoning Silence, Joe Simpson–whose amazing battle for survival featured in the multi-award winning “Touching the Void”–travels to the treacherous North Face of the Eiger to tell the story of one of mountaineerings most epic tragedies. As a child, it was this story and that of one of the climbers in particular, that first captured Simpsons imagination and inspired him to take up mountaineering.

Toni Kurz was a brilliant young mountaineer, who along with three other climbers tried to climb the mountain in 1936, which was then the last great unconquered peak in the Alps. Their assault on the mountain started well, but then disaster struck. One by one Kurzs colleagues were killed, leaving him alone, hanging on the end of a rope fighting for his life in the most horrific of circumstances. Over 50 years later in Peru, Kurzs story haunted Simpson as he battled for his own survival while hanging in mid-air. His plight uncannily mirrored that of Kurz–except, against all the odds, Simpson lived whilst his hero had perished.

The Beckoning Silence tells the story of Kurzs heroic battle for survival, but in the process it also forces Simpson to confront a fundamental question: why continue climbing when you have come so close to oblivion? In this gripping, action-packed adventure film with a difference, Simpson finally confronts his demons on the Eigers North Face, and rediscovers the thrill of the climb that once made him feel so alive. (Imdb)


By Patricia Wynn Davies

In The Beckoning Silence, the first in an Edge of Endurance season on Channel 4, climber Joe Simpson set off to recount the story of one of those tragedies, one it turned out he was particularly well-attuned to tell. We started by reference to the now famous accident Simpson had in the Andes at age 25, when climbing partner Simon Yates was forced to cut Simpson’s rope, sending him hurtling hundreds of feet into a crevasse – the disaster recounted in Simpson’s book Touching the Void and, especially nail-bitingly, in Kevin Macdonald’s film. Here, the main focus was the horrific experience, told in dramatic reconstruction, of a young German climber called Toni Kurz, who with three colleagues came to grief on the treacherous, sunless North Face of the Eiger in 1936. Or should I say the main one of a number of focuses, for Simpson was clearly determined to confront several topics at once.

One concerned the brooding, frightening but hypnotic power of the North Face, one of the most unforgiving terrains on the planet, and how the smallest change in circumstance can doom the best of men. Another was the similarity between Kurz’s tragic end and Simpson’s own near-death experience – Kurz died hanging on the end of a rope. “I am finished,” he had called out in a clear voice when he realised he would never come within reach of his rescue party a mere 50ft below. He had dangled on his rope for two days and two nights. Another subject was the difference between Simpson’s attitude to climbing after his accident and now. That meant a lot of strands for director Louise Osmond to keep under control, along with scenes on the mountain in which Simpson, with the aid of a helicopter at one point, retraced the nerve-wracking challenges that Kurz and his team had faced. The several layers certainly took this film out of the realms of the standard endurance documentary. It took its time in building up a head of tension, it wasn’t Touching the Void mark two, but it was ambitious and reflective.

That mountaineering is an unfathomable business was clear from the outset, when Simpson revealed that it was Kurz’s agonising death that inspired him to take up climbing in the first place – “because he never gave up, right to the end”.

Mountaineering was life-enhancing and life-defining. But in fact, Simpson’s views began to change some time back, with the misgivings he expressed in the book of The Beckoning Silence, published in 2002. Writing about his passion, he told us, had convinced him that it was also killing too many people, and now the passion was gone. Like other spent passions, I suppose, he now viewed it as “completely illogical”. Climbing was “not justifiable by any rational terms”, which is about as much as anyone can say.

I’ll declare an interest and reveal that I am a fan of ubiquitous, outrageous, kohl-eyed Russell Brand, which some people my age apparently find strange. But beneath the back-combed hair lies a smart if unconventional mind. Russell Brand’s Ponderland (Channel 4), showing each night this week, combines reminiscences on various topics with archive and newly-filmed segments, plus phone calls to supposedly “unsuspecting” targets. Last night’s opener was about the fears and confusions of childhood and the phone target Russell’s dad Ron, who was called upon to reflect on the difference in colour between boys’ and men’s willies. Well, Brand has never been known for holding back, though I sensed a slightly less wild Brand than hitherto. There were even some grains of common sense amid the hilarity, the f-words and the “awright” accent.



Touching the Void (2003) Documentary Film. Director: Kevin Macdonald



In the mid-80’s two young climbers attempted to reach the summit of Siula Grande in Peru; a feat that had previously been attempted but never achieved. With an extra man looking after base camp, Simon and Joe set off to scale the mount in one long push over several days. The peak is reached, however on the descent Joe falls and breaks his leg. Despite what it means, the two continue with Simon letting Joe out on a rope for 300 meters, then descending to join him and so on. However when Joe goes out over an overhang with no way of climbing back up, Simon makes the decision to cut the rope. Joe falls into a crevasse and Simon, assuming him dead, continues back down. Joe however survives the fall and was lucky to hit a ledge in the crevasse. This is the story of how he got back down.(Imdb)




Mountain climbing has long provided a seductive metaphor for spiritual quests, ever since Moses went up Mount Sinai and came down with the Ten Commandments.

We may no longer expect explicit spiritual guidance in our mountain movies, but a film like Kevin Macdonald’s disappointing ”Touching the Void,” a British semidocumentary that opens today in New York and Los Angeles, is still very much concerned with notions of purification and transcendence, of slipping the bonds of ordinary material existence and entering a new, elevated realm of stark simplicity, elemental forces and moral clarity.


The mountain movies that were popular in Germany in the late 20’s and early 30’s, many starring Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker, pointed a clear way out of the messy conflicts and confusions of the Weimar era. Unfortunately, however, they pointed to Hitler, who quickly appropriated the mountain imagery for his own propaganda ends.

In keeping with our current ideologies, the climb in ”Touching the Void” is treated less like a religious retreat than a psychological encounter session, a high-altitude group-therapy meeting that allows its two real-life protagonists, the British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, to learn important lessons about themselves and their inter-personal relationships.

With the use of staged, pseudo-documentary sequences, the film reconstructs the disastrous 1985 attempt that Mr. Simpson and Mr. Yates made on the 21,000-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. All went well for three days until Mr. Simpson fell and drove his lower leg into his kneecap, leaving him crippled. Mr. Yates tried to lower Mr. Simpson down the mountainside with a climbing rope, but accidentally lowered him into a deep crevasse. Receiving no response from his partner, Mr. Yates was faced with a terrible choice: either to stay and hold on to the rope, at the risk of being eventually pulled into the ravine by Mr. Simpson’s body weight, or to cut the rope and try to save himself.

While the actors Brendan Mackey (as Mr. Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (as Mr. Yates) recreate the climb on camera (with the help of climbing doubles), clambering through locations that range from the actual Peruvian mountain to Mount Blanc in the Alps, the genuine Mr. Simpson and Mr. Yates narrate their adventures from an unidentified cozy, warm place just off screen. Because we already know the two men will survive, suspense is at a minimum; the film is more concerned with the awful suffering they endured, tortures both mental (as Mr. Yates struggles with the decision to cut the cord) and physical (as Mr. Simpson finds himself in the pit of an ice cave, barely able to crawl and with no obvious way out).

This is compelling stuff, but there is something deeply distracting in the use of recreated material. Mr. Macdonald, the director, imitates a raw, video-based cinéma vérité style, but fairly often places the camera in locations that would be inaccessible to a cameraman on the actual expedition (for example, when Mr. Simpson falls into the crevasse, the camera crew is already there to meet him).

Just as Mr. Simpson falls into the physical hell of the mountain’s cavernous innards, so does Mr. Yates confront the moral hell of being forced — or so he believes — to sacrifice his partner in order to save himself. The lesson of ”Touching the Void” is that both experiences not only can be survived, but also can be an occasion for what the daytime talk shows call ”personal growth.” Having come through, having touched the void and been touched by it, Mr. Simpson and Mr. Yates are shown as elevated spirits, with a new sense of what is important in their lives and what is not. It is apparently not only the church that now produces saints but also extreme sports as well.




For someone who fervently believes he will never climb a mountain, I spend an unreasonable amount of time thinking about mountain-climbing. In my dreams my rope has come lose and I am falling, falling, and all the way down I am screaming: “Stupid! You’re so stupid! You climbed all the way up there just so you could fall back down!”

Now there is a movie more frightening than my nightmares. “Touching the Void” is the most harrowing movie about mountain climbing I have seen, or can imagine. I’ve read reviews from critics who were only moderately stirred by the film (my friend Dave Kehr certainly kept his composure), and I must conclude that their dreams are not haunted as mine are.

I didn’t take a single note during this film. I simply sat there before the screen, enthralled, fascinated and terrified. Not for me the discussions about the utility of the “pseudo-documentary format,” or questions about how the camera happened to be waiting at the bottom of the crevice when Simpson fell in. “Touching the Void” was, for me, more of a horror film than any actual horror film could ever be.

The movie is about Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two Brits in their mid-20s who were determined to scale the forbidding west face of a mountain named Siula Grande, in the Peruvian Andes. They were fit and in good training, and bold enough to try the “one push” method of climbing, in which they carried all their gear with them instead of establishing caches along the route. They limited their supplies to reduce weight, and planned to go up and down quickly.

It didn’t work out that way. Snowstorms slowed and blinded them. The ascent was doable, but on the way down, the storms disoriented them and the drifts concealed the hazard of hidden crevices and falls. Roped together, they worked with one man always anchored, and so Yates was able to hold the rope when Simpson had a sudden fall. But it was disastrous: He broke his leg, driving the calf bone up through the knee socket. Both of them knew that a broken leg on a two-man climb, with rescue impossible, was a death sentence, and indeed Simpson tells us he was rather surprised that Yates decided to stay with him and try to get him down.

We know that Simpson survived, because the movie shows the real-life Simpson and Yates, filmed against plain backgrounds, looking straight on into the camera, remembering their adventure in their own words. We also see the ordeal re-enacted by two actors (Brendan Mackey as Simpson, Nicholas Aaron as Yates), and experienced climbers are used as stunt doubles. The movie was shot on location in Peru and also in the Alps, and the climbing sequences are always completely convincing; the use of actors in those scenes is not a distraction because their faces are so bearded, frost-bitten and snow-caked that we can hardly recognize them.

Yates and Simpson had a 300-foot rope. Yates’ plan was to lower Simpson 300 feet and wait for a tug on the rope. That meant Simpson had dug in and anchored himself and it was safe for Yates to climb down and repeat the process. A good method in theory, but then, after dark, in a snow storm, Yates lowered Simpson over a precipice and left him hanging in mid-air over a drop of unknowable distance. Because they were out of earshot in the blizzard, all Yates could know was that the rope was tight and not moving, and his feet were slipping out of the holes he had dug to brace them. After an hour or so, he realized they were at an impasse. Simpson was hanging in mid air, Yates was slipping, and unless he cut the rope they would both surely die. So he cut the rope.

Simpson says he would have done the same thing under the circumstances, and we believe him. What we can hardly believe is what happens next, and what makes the film into an incredible story of human endurance.

If you plan to see the film — it will not disappoint you — you might want to save the rest of the review until later.

Simpson, incredibly, falls into a crevice but is slowed and saved by several snow bridges he crashes through before he lands on an ice ledge with a drop on either side. So there he is, in total darkness and bitter cold, his fuel gone so that he cannot melt snow, his lamp battery running low, and no food. He is hungry, dehydrated, and in cruel pain from the bones grinding together in his leg (two aspirins didn’t help much).

It is clear Simpson cannot climb back up out of the crevice. So he eventually gambles everything on a strategy that seems madness itself, but was his only option other than waiting for death: He uses the rope to lower himself down into the unknown depths below. If the distance is more than 300 feet, well, then, he will literally be at the end of his rope.

But there is a floor far below, and in the morning he sees light and is able, incredibly, to crawl out to the mountainside. And that is only the beginning of his ordeal. He must somehow get down the mountain and cross a plain strewn with rocks and boulders, so that he cannot walk but must try to hop or crawl despite the pain in his leg. That he did it is manifest, since he survived to write a book and appear in the movie. How he did it provides an experience that at times had me closing my eyes against his agony.

This film is an unforgettable experience, directed by Kevin Macdonald (who made “One Day In September,” the Oscar-winner about the 1972 Olympiad) with a kind of brutal directness and simplicity that never tries to add suspense or drama (none is needed!) but simply tells the story, as we look on in disbelief.

We learn at the end that after two years of surgery Simpson’s leg was repaired, and that (but you anticipated this, didn’t you?) he went back to climbing again. Learning this, I was reminded of Boss Gettys’ line about Citizen Kane: “He’s going to need more than one lesson.” I hope to God the rest of his speech does not apply to Simpson: “… and he’ s going to get more than one lesson.”





The Cove (2009) Documentary Film. Director: Louie Psihoyos




Richard O’Barry was the man who captured and trained the dolphins for the television showFlipper. O’Barry’s view of cetaceans in captivity changed from that experience when as the last straw he saw that one of the dolphins playing Flipper – her name being Kathy – basically committed suicide in his arms because of the stress of being in captivity. Since that time, he has become one of the leading advocates against cetaceans in captivity and for the preservation of cetaceans in the wild. O’Barry and filmmaker ‘Louie Psihoyos (I)’ go about trying to expose one of what they see as the most cruel acts against wild dolphins in the world in Taiji, Japan, where dolphins are routinely corralled, either to be sold alive to aquariums and marine parks, or slaughtered for meat. The primary secluded cove where this activity is taking place is heavily guarded. O’Barry and Psihoyos are well known as enemies by the authorities in Taiji, the authorities who will use whatever tactic to expel the two …(Imdb)


The Cove begins in Taiji, Japan, where former dolphin trainer Ric O’arry has come to set things right after a long search for redemption. In the 1960s, it was O’Barry who captured and trained the 5 dolphins who played the title character in the international television sensation “flipper.”

But his close relationship with those dolphins – the very dolphins who sparked a global fascination with trained sea mammals that continues to this day — led O’Barry to a radical change of heart. One fateful day, a heartbroken Barry came to realize that these deeply sensitive, highly intelligent and self-aware creatures so beautifully adapted to life in the open ocean must never be subjected to human captivity again. This mission has brought him to Taiji, a town that appears to be devoted to the wonders and mysteries of the sleek, playful dolphins and whales that swim off their coast.

But in a remote, glistening cove, surrounded by barbed wire and “Keep Out” signs, lies a dark reality. It is here, under cover of night, that the fishermen of Taiji, driven by a multi-billion dollar dolphin entertainment industry and an underhanded market for mercury-tainted dolphin meat, engage in an unseen hunt. The nature of what they do is so chilling — and the consequences are so dangerous to human health — they will go to great lengths to halt anyone from seeing it.(Mubi)