Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (2017)

imagesDirected by: Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maioran 

Perhaps you’ve heard the narrative that rock and roll music was born when a teenage truck driver by the name of Elvis Presley did an upbeat cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mamma.” Perhaps you’ve also heard the criticism that this story erases the degree to which rock and roll was a black invention developed by figures like Crudup, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The seeming ambition of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, is to look at where another of America’s defining racial groups fits into this story. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this documentary opens in the 50s. We see black and white footage, a dance hall, side burns, and Link Wray, the Shawnee rockabilly who wrote the film’s titular song.

After telling some of Wray’s story, the film goes on to explore the likes of other indigenous musicians from the 20th century: we hear the rhythmic blues guitar of Charlie Patton, the drums of Randy Castillo, the jazz vocals of Mildred Bailey and the rhymes of Taboo. The films biggest success, can thus be said to be the scope of who it covers. The film spans decades and genres and in doing so makes visible numerous indigenous icons in American musical history. This itself is a feat worth commending: representing members of marginalized groups in popular media is one way of making that media become even more inclusive in the future.

On the other hand, the film is plagued by serious narrative and pacing problems. Part of this stems from the fact a number of the featured artists were instrumentalists. As compelling an artistic choice it was for the film to open with Wray, an indigenous Elvis-figure of sorts, there are only so many interviewers one can hear about the sound of his power chords before losing interest. While Wray had a lengthy career as a vocalist and lyricist as well as a guitar player, the film made the odd decision to reduce his legacy to one, albeit iconic, instrumental track. Similarly, Randy Castillo and Jesse Ed Davis come across as having interesting, and tragic stories, yet their segments are underwhelming to the film’s over focus on snippets of their instrumental work. I say this, I must emphasize, not as a non-connoisseur of music, but out of the realization that music is a language of its own that can’t always be readily described with words. Davis’ solo in “Dr. My Eyes,” is indeed phenomenal, but even hearing the reliably cool and articulate Jackson Browne talk about it, does not make for good entertainment.

The strongest moment of the film comes when it discusses artists from the 60s: Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Peter La Farge (and by extension Johnny Cash). These artists were not simply indigenous musicians who produced hypnotic sounds, but radical lyricists and storytellers. Their presence in the film therefore is more dynamic than that of their peers. Not only can Sainte-Marie and La Farge be celebrated for being representation of indigenous peoples, but also as ambassadors of indigenous causes: singers whose lyrics terrified American authorities with their calls for a just, decolonized world.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World is replete with interesting information and has the potential to intrigue popular music fanatics. Unfortunately, it is still a bit lacking as an artistic work. Perhaps the presence of a narrator, unifying the film’s many figures could have made it more engaging. Alternatively, the film could have covered fewer artists but with better depth. Regardless of its shortcomings, Rumble’s release is still a cause for celebration: a reminder to fire up the old turn table and give tracks like “The Weight,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” and “Rumble,” a spin.

 

 

 

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Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)

Written and Directed by: Damien ChazelleGuy_and_Madeline_on_a_Park_Bench_Theatrical_Poster

At the time of its release, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was compared to (early) Jean-Luc Godard films. Were it released today (and simultaneously still released in 2009), this work would be called the proto-La La Land. As with writer-director Damien Chazelle’s recent breakout, Guy and Madeline is a musical-ish simple love story that pays homage to jazz. If you take La La Land, take out the color (literally), take out the theatre-story-line, and take out the latter film’s most intense emotional and introspective moments, you get Guy and Madeline.

 

During the lead up to Moonlight’s almost-denied-victory at the 2017 Oscars, La La Land was portrayed by some as predictable-white-nostalgia, in contrast to Moonlight’s conscientious brilliance. While, broadly speaking, this was a fair point to make from a critical-race perspective, it’s not a great way of understanding La La Land, a film that has less of a message or an ideology, than its critics make it out to have. La La Land, is not so much a story as a moving sculpture: a diorama of dazzling dance numbers set against Hollywood stars. This diorama is navigated by characters exploring a variety of jazz and Broadway sounds, while participating in a love story that is just nuanced enough to be interesting.

 

This understanding of La La Land is reinforced by Guy and Madeline. La La Land tells a simple, bittersweet love story; Guy and Madeline tells a bittersweet love story that couldn’t be simpler. La La Land featured just enough songs to be considered (by some, not me) a musical, rather than a quirky film with random musical outbreaks; Guy and Madeline drifts even further from the “musical” label, featuring numerous songs that feed the film’s jazz aesthetic, but do not directly forward its plot.

 

The (non-spoiled) story of Guy and Madeline is simple: sometimes there is love, sometimes there is heartache, but there is always jazz (unless you’re that one character who doesn’t appreciate jazz).

 

It would be wrong to say Chazelle’s film making is devoid of nostalgia; a black-and-white film about the popular music of bygone decades certainly fits that bill. But, as with La La Land, Guy and Madeline is not a film you watch to be passionate; it is a film you watch simply to be. It’s a film that casts aside the distraction of color, and, with its constant zoom-ins on the smiles (and grimaces) of its characters, invites viewers to enjoy and share in their simple pleasures (and frustrations). When Guy joyously lists composers, some viewers may hear ordinary dialogue, but others may share in his moment of ambition and passion, recalling their own mundane “adventures” in the world of music fandom.

 

The film’s subtlety makes its highlights easy to miss without a re-watch. The titular scene is silent and brief, but the ordinary role played by Guy’s small, light-colored, trumpet case, makes the scene one of the film’s highlights.

 

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is not written to be popular cinema, but it’s not inaccessible: it’s deceptively simple. Viewers looking to “lose their heart in Cincinnati” (or New York, or Boston, viewers will get the reference), or simply study Chazelles small, but excellent, cannon, should check it out.