Examining the considerable contributions made by Native Americans to America's popular music, the documentary "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World" is celebratory as it fills in missing chapters in the story of rock 'n' roll, jazz, blues, and soul. But it also doesn't shy away from our country's horrific legacy of discrimination against its indigenous peoples, a history which led many of the musicians profiled in the film to keep their heritage hidden, leaving their influence to go widely go unknown.
Taking on this fascinating subject, directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana combine archival performances and recreations with interviews of historians and culture experts along with a plethora of musicians, like Robbie Robertson (who's part Mohawk), George Clinton, drummer Marky Ramone, Quincy Jones, Dan Auerbach, and Tony Bennett — even filmmaker and music enthusiast Martin Scorsese stops by to provide commentary.
"Rumble" takes its title from the influential 1958 single by Shawnee guitarist Link Wray. A power chord masterpiece with pioneering use of feedback and distortion, it's a song E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt calls, "the theme song to juvenile delinquency." In fact, the track was banned from radio play out of fear that it would incite teenage gang violence — quite a feat for a wordless instrumental piece.
The film can feel episodic, and sometimes messy in its execution as it jumps through the music of different regions, tracing how specifically Native American rhythms and sounds found expression in various popular music forms. Later segments are devoted to Charley Patton, the "Father of the Delta Blues," and jazz singer Mildred Bailey, before drawing a line straight through later artists, like the part-Native American Jimi Hendrix and Redbone.
With so much material, it can seem like it's too much for just one film to cover. But in pulling this thread, the filmmakers show how inextricable it is from the overall fabric of American music. They provide a compelling illustration that the mingling of cultures has always been a fact of life in this country; a tradition as American as rock 'n' roll.
A conversation between Peter Jemison, of Ganondagan State Historic Site, and film critic Jack Garner will follow the screening on August 8