It’s difficult to articulate just how much of American rock, blues, and jazz music was influenced by the original owners of the North American land it was made on, but Catherine Bainbridge and co-director Alfonso Maiorana’s documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World should take a huge step forward in chronicling such a lost history. Through cycles of oppression – all of which were tied to controlling the land around them – the Native American influence on popular culture has been all but repressed for decades.
Based around a Smithsonian exhibit of the same name, Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World looks at individual contributions made to modern music by the indigenous icons who influenced generations. The power chord was basically invented by Link Wray, who produced the electrifying instrumental track the film takes its name from (and was also the only instrumental to get banned in parts of the United States). Bob Dylan would have never experimented with electrical instruments if not for the input of Robbie Robertson. Guitarist and Rumble executive producer Stevie Salas would collaborate with everyone from George Clinton to Rod Stewart to Justin Timberlake and found his connection to his cultural identity through 1980s heavy metal. Names like Mildred Bailey, Robert Castillo, Taboo, and even Jimi Hendrix can claim Native American ancestry, and they drew upon their backgrounds to become some of the best in their respective fields.
While the individual tracks created and shaped by these influential musicians have stood the test of time, the heritage upon which they were built has been systematically erased and slowly rebuilt in patches over time. Rumble doesn’t dwell too strenuously on the often painful and repressed history of indigenous peoples, but the filmmakers do make a point to show how Native American music was rigidly controlled and outlawed for years in a systemic attempt to eradicate non-white culture. Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World wants to remain positive, but the film understands that it can’t get to a place of positivity without first outlining great pains.
Rumble alternates between an historical overview of the indigenous diaspora throughout history and intriguingly drawn personal narratives on people who we might not realize changed how we think about music. It’s also told largely from the perspective of those who live and work within the industry, which leads to a fresh and appropriately reverential take on musical history. All of the varied interview subjects in Rumble have a clear engagement when talking about their influences, and that enthusiasm helps make the documentary roar to life and underline the importance of Native American musical contributions. What could have been a lengthy recitation of facts instead becomes an endearing chance for musicians to wax rhapsodic about other musicians. This lends a lot of entertainment value to the already engaging material, and it’s easy to see why Rumble has picked up so much good will and acclaim with audiences on the festival circuit, especially at Sundance and Hot Docs earlier this year.
Music documentaries at their best are often fun and informative. Rumble is certainly both of those things, but it’s also an increasingly rare music doc with the power to rewrite history. As new generations of repressed peoples get in touch with their musical roots more and more every day, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World should stand as an inspiring and vital document of things frustratingly forgotten.
Is Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World essential viewing?
Yes. No matter if viewers come wanting to learn cultural history or just a look inside some of rock, jazz, and pop music’s greatest artists, they’ll get what they came for and more.
Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World opens Friday, July 28, 2017 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Check their website for more information.