‘Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World’: Film Review | Sundance 2017
The influence of Native Americans on nearly a century of popular music is eloquently demonstrated in this engaging documentary.
As Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana’s astoundingly rich and resonant music documentary makes abundantly clear, American popular music – and the history of rock and roll itself – wouldn’t be the same without the contributions of Native American performers. Although these Indian musicians’ heritage is often an integral component of their artistic expression, it may not always be obvious to their fans.
As the film engagingly lifts the veil on Native Americans’ role in several generations of pop music, it traces their involvement from the Delta blues and jazz eras up to present-day hip hop. Brimming with revealing first-person interviews, tantalizing audio clips and dynamic concert footage, Rumble evinces the enviable potential to appeal to a broad range of audiences in a variety of formats.
Signaling the determination of indigenous musicians to assert their enduring role in rock, the doc takes Fred Lincoln “Link” Wray, Jr.’s seminal guitar instrumental “Rumble” as its departure point. Born in North Carolina of Shawnee descent, Wray and his Ray Men band recorded “Rumble” in 1958. Running approximately two-and-a-half minutes, the single’s ominous guitar riffs have been widely cited as early examples of the power chord technique, a rock 'n' roll staple beloved by musicians as diverse as The Who’s Pete Townsend and punk pioneers The Ramones. “The sound of that guitar is the key of Link Wray,” notes music documentarian Martin Scorsese. “It’s interesting how much of the Native American element just filters through.”
Wray, who adopted a frequently energetic performance style that added layers of reverberation to his guitar technique, is also frequently associated with popularizing amplified distortion, which would become inseparably identified with the electric guitar heroes of the 1960s. While rock iconoclast Jimi Hendrix perhaps most singularly personifies the era’s penchant for innovation, his sister Janie Hendrix recalls that he never drifted far from his heritage, rooted in his part-Cherokee grandmother’s professional musical experience: “He was very proud of being native and being African-American and being Scottish.”
In its early going, the film emphasizes that Native American musical pioneers weren’t limited to rock, exploring the influence of Choctaw and African-American blues guitarist Charley Patton and vocalist Mildred Bailey from the Coeur d'Alene tribe. Characterized by his signature percussive guitar style, Patton is often cited as a direct influence on such blues greats as Robert Johnson (“Cross Road Blues”) and Howlin’ Wolf (“Smokestack Lightning”), who studied with Patton in Mississippi. Bailey (“Rockin’ Chair”) was one of the leading jazz singers of the '20s and '30s, and contributed measurably to the foundations of swing music. “She was one of the great improvisers of jazz,” remarks singer Tony Bennett. “I was completely influenced by Mildred Bailey.”
After decades of official government oppression, however, many Indian musicians were reluctant to reveal their heritage and it wasn’t until almost the 1960s that a sense of ethnic pride emerged. Mohawk guitarist and soundtrack composer Robbie Robertson (Gangs of New York, The Departed) remembers a saying from the '50s when he was starting out in rock 'n' roll: “Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell.”
Robertson, who famously led the band that backed Bob Dylan during some of his first electric-guitar shows, specifically cites the importance of Wray’s “Rumble” in contemporary music. “It changed everything. It made an indelible mark on the whole evolution of where rock was gonna go. And then I found out he was an Indian.” When Robertson's group went out on their own as The Band, they crafted some of the original classics of Americana music with hits like “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” Scorsese, who shot The Band’s final performance for his concert documentary The Last Waltz, observes: “They were milestones in American music.”
Rumble’s wealth of material owes much to the participation of Apache executive producer Stevie Salas, a gifted guitarist who’s recorded and toured with Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger. Salas co-created the Smithsonian’s 2010 exhibit “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture,” inspiring the filmmakers to expand the focus on native performers.
Maiorana and Bainbridge (whose documentary Reel Injun looked at representations of Native Americans in Hollywood movies) have assembled a formidable lineup of interview subjects, which also includes Iggy Pop, Buddy Guy, Stevie Van Zandt, Taj Mahal, Steve Tyler, John Trudell, George Clinton and Jackson Browne, among many other musical luminaries. Editors Ben Duffield and Jeremiah Hayes have impressively alchemized a rather unruly selection of TV clips, photographs and archival footage into an intriguingly accessible timeline.
Rumble closes with footage of ongoing Native American protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline site in North Dakota and a performance by Cree singer-songwriter and longtime social activist Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”), a reminder that indigenous peoples' voices and music cannot be silenced or ignored.
Production company: Rezolution Pictures
Directors-writers: Catherine Bainbridge, Alfonso Maiorana
Producers: Catherine Bainbridge, Christina Fon, Linda Ludwick, Lisa M. Roth
Executive producers: Stevie Salas, Tim Johnson
Director of photography: Alfonso Maiorana
Editors: Ben Duffield, Jeremiah Hayes
Music: Benoit Charest
Sales: East Village Entertainment
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Not rated, 103 minutes