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Insightful doc 'Rumble' celebrates Native American contributions to popular music

POSTED: September 11, 2017 9:10 a.m.
Josh Terry/

Stevie Van Zandt appears in "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World," directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, which was an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

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“RUMBLE: THE INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD” — 3 stars — directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana; not rated; Tower

The fun thing about “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” is that it takes something beloved and familiar and puts a new twist on it. For 103 high-volume minutes, director Catherine Bainbridge attacks her audience with an onslaught of classic rock ’n’ roll sound bites and interviews with the icons of the industry, all while offering a new angle on music history that has for the most part gone unrecognized.

“Rumble” is a comprehensive documentary that explores the Native American contribution to popular music over the last century. It begins with a profile of Link Wray, a leather-clad Native American guitarist in the 1950s who influenced numerous future classic rock superstars with his instrumental number “Rumble.” We learn about his playing style and the fact that his song was banned for fears that it would provoke actual fights between teens.

From there, Bainbridge and co-director Alfonso Maiorana take us back almost 100 years with a profile of another musician, Delta blues pioneer Charley Patton. Patton’s influence extended to Howlin’ Wolf and later to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, but here “Rumble” explains how in the South — and particularly in New Orleans — Native American and African-American ethnicities came together, adding a Native American musical influence to genres that are largely assumed to have emerged exclusively from the music of slave plantations.

One example at a time, “Rumble” moves forward, naming off a who’s-who list of influential musicians who have become ingrained in popular culture. We learn about how Mildred Bailey’s childhood on a reservation in the Idaho panhandle influenced her work in jazz in the 1920s and ’30s, and how Native American music found a folk voice through Buffy Sainte-Marie in the 1960s. We learn about Johnny Cash’s tribute to Native American music on his “Bitter Tears” album, and we see Jesse Ed Davis play electric guitar at the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden.

“Rumble” explores the influence of Jimi Hendrix’s Cherokee heritage and Robbie Robertson’s Mohawk heritage, and we see the members of Redbone perform on TV’s “Midnight Special” in full native regalia. By the end of “Rumble,” you begin to wonder if there’s any aspect of popular music that doesn’t eventually tie back into Native American music in some respect.

Bainbridge doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary in terms of style, rather letting the music and the talking heads do all the heavy lifting. We hear from Tony Bennett, George Clinton, director Martin Scorsese, and all sorts of historians and writers, who sing the praises of the profile subjects. “Rumble” presents a wealth of information couched in a parade of long-celebrated rock ’n’ roll songs that should keep any diehard music fan happy, and will probably send them digging through their collections soon after the final credits roll.

“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” is not rated, but contains some scattered R-rated profanity, as well as some fleeting nudity during footage used from Woodstock; running time: 103 minutes.

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