‘Rumble’ is a Necessary But Disappointing Film About Native Americans in Pop Music

Catherine Bainbridge follows up Reel Injun with similar good intentions.

If “Native Americans in pop music” makes you think of the guy in the headdress in the Village People, then you need to see Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. The documentary showcases the influence and importance of such figures as Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and The Band’s Robbie Robertson all of whom are fully or partially of indigenous descent — as well as to what extent they represented that heritage. Other musicians are profiled in depth or join in as talking heads whom you’re not likely to know were or are Native American, like Taboo of The Black Eyed Peas. Surprisingly, Felipe Rose, the guy from the Village People, who is in fact half-Lakota Sioux , is not even mentioned.

That might not seem like a terrible exclusion, except for the fact that Rumble comes from Catherine Bainbridge, who last co-directed Reel Injun, a doc that similarly addresses Native American representation in pop culture. That’s about cinema and as much about Hollywood’s portrayal of indigenous American and Canadian people and their culture as it is about showcasing Native American talent appearing on and off the big screen. Rumble is primarily a showcase of essential artists, including notable names in blues, jazz, rock and roll, folk, heavy metal, and hip-hop. People you need to know about regardless of their ethnicity, like Charley Patton and Mildred Bailey. And now may know additionally for their background and what it meant.

These profiles are little biographies strewn together with the commonality that each subject is Native American. Some of them get a little further off track than they should, as interviewees go off on discussions of the subjects’ struggle with addiction or cancer. Or in the case of Robertson, the final Band show seen in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Scorsese appears, too, and suddenly the discussion is too much about his own film. Yet they don’t even acknowledge the relevance of the concert having been on Thanksgiving. Then there’s also nothing on Robertson’s later Native American-influenced solo albums. Music history docs are always going to miss some stuff, which is only fine if there’s not so much filler taking its place.

We could do without a lot of what’s in Rumble, including a good amount of what’s said by all the special guests. As is common for music docs, there’s too much favorable rhetoric from talking heads that’s useless beyond the trivial. Talk about a subject’s unique talents or specialty, offer substantial anecdotes, and provide concrete example of their influence and legacy, but just saying someone was great or telling us so and so was so important to you (or, worse, important to some living icon not interviewed, the truth of which therefore isn’t verified) is not interesting, particularly to those of us who might be coming at a film like this to learn something. The good-times atmosphere of Rumble is better suited for docs by and for existing fans.

There is value in the film, though. As a celebration, it’s fine. As a music history lesson, there are some necessary tales and discussion of how the Native American tradition and experience before and during the centuries of tragic marginalization and murder bled into the various popular music genres. Everything about Native American identity, how and when it was hidden versus how and when it became more trendily accepted in the ’60s and ’70s, all of that is vital. Of course there could be a more exhaustive history text published or a museum exhibit like the one that inspired this doc, but we need a film, too, as an entertaining primer with some of the visual and audio record requisite for full appreciation of the subject matter.

Rumble closes out with a conclusion featuring footage of the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, and that’s obviously going to make the film somewhat relevant to viewers now that Trump has ordered for the construction of the pipeline to go forward after all. But otherwise it doesn’t really mean much to the doc itself for any reason other than to show Taboo being there — there’s a brief clip of his new protest song “Stand Up/Stand N Rock,” albeit without any recognition of what it is. There really could have been a more powerful finish with such timely material. It may seem there are many details just being nitpicked against here, but it’s that disappointing that the film isn’t more tightly focused and entirely worth the time.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.