We were left out of the storyconsistently, from the beginning, says Native American poet and musician Joy Harjo early in Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a fascinating new documentary that aims to correct that long-standing omission in the intertwined histories of rock and blues. As the film makes clear, numerous Native Americans played crucial, even seminal roles in the formation of popular music in the U.S. But, for various reasonsincluding a number of them hiding or downplaying their native rootsthey have been marginalized or left out completely. Rumble, which was originally inspired by the 2010 Smithsonian exhibition Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture, goes a long way toward correcting that imbalance in a manner that is both eye-opening and largely entertaining.
Co-directors Catherine Bainbridge, who previously co-directed and produced Reel Injun (2009) about the representation of Native Americans in Hollywood cinema, and Alfonso Maiorana, a camera operator/cinematographer making his directorial debut, follow a roughly chronological trajectory, focusing first on the pioneering guitar work of Link Wray, a Shawnee who grew up dirt poor in North Carolina and rose to musical prominence in the 1950s with his then-unheard-of use of distortion and virtual invention of the power chord, the very bedrock of rocknroll. Wrays instrumental hit Rumble, the song from which the film takes its name, was a revelation at the time and was actually banned in a number of places because, despite having no lyrics, it was considered a potential call to violence. The film then traces the lives and accomplishments of nearly a dozen musicians of Native American ancestry, including singer Mildred Bailey, who helped give Bing Crosby his start; heavy metal drummer Randy Castillo, who played behind the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and brought a uniquely tribal vibe to his drumming; and Jesse Ed Davis, a supremely gifted session guitarist who played with every member of the Beatles, Jackson Browne, and Rod Stewart. Many of the storiestoo many of them, in facthave an aura of tragedy in them, particularly Davis, who struggled with heroin addiction for much of his adult life.
The film benefits substantially from an impressive roster of interview subjects, both Native American musicians and artists like Stevie Salas (who also executive produced the film and helped curate the Smithsonian exhibit that inspired it), folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, and activist John Trudell, but also a wide range of musical legends like George Clinton, Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett, Steven Van Zandt, Iggy Pop, Slash, and Steven Tyler to reflect on their own experiences working and playing with the films subjects. The filmmakers have also assembled an impressive array of archival footage and audio recordings, some of which are extremely rare and all of which go a long way toward conveying in no uncertain terms how the beats and rhythms and chants of various forms of tribal music have informed blues, bluegrass, and rock music. Like the best documentaries, Rumble opens our eyes to something we probably didnt know and helps us see something very familiar in an entirely new light.
Copyright 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Kino Lorber
Overall Rating: (3)
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