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The challenge facing Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World is that most documentaries about rock ’n’ roll nowadays amount to little more than a circlejerk. Directors dutifully get the same musicians and critics, talking about the good old days, back when the music really meant something. You know the type: cranks who talk about Bob Dylan like he’s been deified and ’60s counterculture like it’s the only political movement that mattered. Rumble has more to say than that, except directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana fall into predictable patterns when their informal census loses its momentum.
The primary argument, made by a mix of ethnographers and music historians, is that Native American music was a major influence on rock ’n’ roll. This goes all the way back to before the electric guitar or the blues, when Native Americans would try to pass as black, sharing their culture with African Americans. You can hear the blending of influences the work of blues guitarist Charley Patton, who had a Cherokee grandmother. In the film’s most memorable scene, a modern vocalist listens to a Patton record and is visibly emotional since she hears so much Indian tradition in what’s commonly considered a proto-rock recording.
Bainbridge and Maiorana also focus on Native Americans in pop culture, starting with Link Wray and continuing onto Taboo, a member of The Black Eyed Peas.In terms of form, Bainbridge and Maiorana use traditional documentary techniques. There are lots of interviews, usually spoken with either breathless enthusiasm or abundant sincerity, while music plays in the background. The only reenactment is when Rumble uses an actor as a stand-in for “Rumble,” a song so iconic that it sets a mood with only three chords. Some of the stories are already familiar to longtime classic rock fans: The Band’s Robbie Robertson, whose mother was a fullblood Mohawk, talks about how he and Bob Dylan were booed during their infamous 1966 tour of England. The film even includes discussion of Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance, as if most of his biggest fans do not already regularly recreate the show through an acid flashback. There is an added context for what these performances mean, but the overall narrative is nonetheless padded.
Another strong section of Rumble is when the directors get into the 1970s and 1980s, a period when Native American musicians felt more comfortable exploring their identity in public. Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” has had a minor resurgence, now that Chris Pratt dances to it over the opening credits of Guardians of the Galaxy, so Rumble reminds us that the band—all of whom are Native American—would dress in full feather garb and perform tribal dances before their hits. Some stories are more tragic than others: Late session guitarist Jesse Davis counted The Beatles among his biggest fans before his fatal overdose in the late ’80s. The film does not dwell on these sad moments, so they have the resonance of a liner note.
No matter whether these musicians performed—in the Mississippi Delta, jazz clubs in New York City, or on tour with Ozzy Osborne—they somehow left a unique mark. Rumble argues they would play harder, with more soul and raw passion than musicians who were white or black. It is an intriguing idea, made all the more palpable by the repeated rhythms and chanting. Good intentions elevate a documentary like this, since few of the characters discussed get the credit they’re due. More importantly, many of them kept their identity a secret, so their pride and output are not quite linked. Rumble may repeat a lot of what you already know, especially if you own The Last Waltz or any film about music in the 1960s. Still, there is a welcome earnestness here, celebrating tunes you should probably listen to again, anyway.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.