I’m not attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, but I was graciously sent screeners for a couple of films premiering at both the Sundance Film Festival and its young upstart, Slamdance. I’ll post reviews of those films here on my blog in concurrence with their premieres in Park City.
If you could distill all of ’50s teenage rebellion into three chords, those three chords would be Link Wray’s “Rumble.” The sleepy swagger of Wray’s guitar (trust me, you’ve heard it) was so provocative that authorities banned the single from radio stations for fear it would incite violence — even though it was an instrumental.
A lot of great rock music — from The Who to the MC5 to Led Zeppelin, and then the bands they influenced — flowed from those three chords. But relatively few music lovers know of Link Wray, and very few of them know that he was a Native American.
The engaging Canadian documentary “Rumble: The Indians That Rocked the World,” which premiered Sunday night at the Yarrow Hotel at the Sundance Film Festival, aims to correct the record. Not just for Wray, but Robbie Robertson, John Trudell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and even a guitarist who was part Cherokee by the name of Jimi Hendrix.
Directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana enlist a heavyweight list of talking heads to tell that story, including Robertson, Sainte-Marie, and Trudell (who died after the film was completed), along with Martin Scorsese, Gary Giddins, Steven Van Zandt, Wayne Kramer, Rhiannon Giddens, and many more. The soundtrack is, not surprisingly, phenomenal.
The film is most persuasive in showing how Native American music found its way into the very earliest forms of popular music — after slavery, both Native Americans and African-Americans in the South found their traditions and their bloodlines mixing together. In one scene, we see a Native American woman listening to an old blues track by the legendary Charley Patton, and you can hear the Native American influences in his style of singing and percussive guitar playing. “When I hear this, it’s Indian music to me,” she tells the interviewer. “Do you hear it?”
Aside from that wellspring, “Rumble” mostly skips from one Native American musician to another like isolated chapters in a book. In doing so, the film occasionally wanders away from its core subject of Native American influences — what Robertson’s recollection of The Band’s “The Last Waltz” really has to do with that isn’t clear. On the other hand, if you’ve got Robertson and Scorsese talking about “The Last Waltz,” you’re hard-pressed not to put it in your documentary.
At other points, “Rumble” is a little frustrating when it introduces a Native American musician we might not have known and then doesn’t spend long enough telling their story. This is especially true with guitarist Jessie Ed Davis, who worked with all the bigwigs of the 1970s (his guitar solo on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” is iconic) only to succumb to heroin addiction. He deserves his own movie.
But maybe the lack of focus in the film’s second half is a hidden strength, because it underscores the diversity of where these Native Americans came, their approach to music, and how upfront they were about their heritage. Some, like Saint-Marie and Trudell, addressed Native American themes directly in their lyrics. Others, like Redbone, would perform in traditional Native American dress, but the songs were just good, mainstream rock songs, like Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” featured in the opening credits to “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
“Rumble” was co-produced by public television’s Independent Lens, which means it will likely show up on television at some point. It’ll play several more times at Sundance during the week — here’s the full schedule of screenings.