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This powerful documentary about the role of Native Americans in contemporary music history-featuring some of the greatest music stars of our time-exposes a critical missing chapter, revealing how indigenous musicians helped shape the soundtracks of our lives and, through their contributions, influenced popular culture.
“Rumble,” the guitar instrumental recorded by Link Wray in 1957, is to modern rock music what the monolith was to those primates in the “Dawn of Man” section of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” If you’re ever on a quest for The Thing Itself in amplified music, “Rumble” is a convincer. Sure, Chuck Berry invented licks and riffs and a worldview that invented “rock n roll,” but Wray, with a surly distorted tone that one-upped the broken-amplifier crackle of Ike Turner’s axe on “Rocket 88,” helped invent “rock.” Hendrix, hard rock, heavy metal all owe him big.
He’s the launching pad for this movie about Native Americans (here called “Indians” for reasons that become clearer as the movie goes on) and their influence not just on rock but on American music. As is pointed out more than once, the music of the Shawnee, the Choctaw, the Mohawk, the Apache, and so many other tribes, is in a very real sense the first American music. Race-mixing between blacks and Indians resulted in a cultural consciousness that enabled a melding of African music and Indian. Among other things, the movie makes a convincing case that the Indian tradition was one explicitly drawn upon by Charlie Patton, one of the giants of Delta Blues.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The movie, directed by Catherine Bainbridgewith Alfonso Maiorana, begins with Wray. And the section devoted to him is actually the weakest one in the movie. As if wanting to convince the viewer as to its authoritativeness, it mixes scintillating archival footage of the badass guitarist, from clean-cut-with-pomaded-hair ‘50s incarnation to leather-clad ‘70s Gibson SG mangler with a parade of talking heads talking about how significant “Rumble” was. I enjoy hearing from Steven Van Zandt, the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, Slash, music critic David Fricke et. al. as much as the next enthusiast, but after a while I’m thinking, “Instead of talking so much about ‘Rumble,’ how about letting us actually HEAR more of it?”
It’s also peculiar that the movie drops Wray pretty much right after giving us the news that “Rumble” was banned from a host of radio stations, a signal accomplishment for an instrumental. “The theme song of juvenile delinquency,” Van Zandt says, delightedly. Wray’s subsequent career was as action-packed and eccentric as any rock figure you can name, and it doesn’t get played out here. Maybe they’re saving it for a separate documentary.