Directed and Written by: Catherine Bainbridge, Alfonso Maiorana (co-director)
Featuring: Robbie Robertson, Joy Harjo, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tony Bennett, Martin Scorsese, Taboo
Produced by: Catherine Bainbridge, Christina Fon, Linda Ludwick, Lisa M. Roth
Executive Produced by: Stevie Salas, Tim Johnson, Catherine Bainbridge, Christina Fon, Linda Ludwick, Jan Roefkamp, Ernest Webb
Music by: Benoît Charest
Cinematography by: Alfonso Maiorana
Editing by: Jeremiah Hayes, Ben Duffield
Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling –2017 Sundance Film Festival
“White Americans have a short memory.” – Sherman Alexie
Intersectional American cinema is having a historical moment as I write this, three weekends away from an Academy Awards ceremony honoring multiple filmmakers and performers of color. Among the most heralded films are Moonlight, about queer young men in a drug-ravaged section of Florida; O.J.: Made in America, a breathtaking documentary reconsideration of the cultural, racial, and litigious circumstances surrounding the eponymous football player’s trial; and Moana, a happy-go-lucky animated adventure drawn from indigenous Pacific Islander mythos. Put simply, the air is ripe for discursive, engaged mediamakers to push more inclusive revisionist images into the mainstream – especially in film. Good timing, then, for Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.
Although directed and written by Québécois filmmakers Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, Rumble is primarily a dialogical intervention against the audio and visual cultures of the United States. Their goal, like all respected Pop artists’, is the kind of objective that’s so obvious we all should have thought to do it: to recover a lost history of American Indians in popular music. But so heavily intertwined are the consumer media in our country – radio, television, photography, cinema – that the film takes on an epic scope and chronology spanning two hundred years. Bainbridge and Maiorana prove adept at corralling this sprawling net of footage and sound, creating a mostly cogent and handsomely delivered movie-argument all the more impressive for it being Maiorana’s feature debut (Bainbridge, on the other hand, was the co-director/co-writer of Peabody Award-winning doc Reel Injun.)
The filmmakers contend, perhaps overreachingly, that every musical genre in the West owes a debt to Native performers. Early on, the delta blues had Charley Patton (Cherokee); crooner jazz got Mildred Bailey (Coeur d’Alene Tribe); and folk music had Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). Through interviews with ethnomusicologists and cultural gate-keepers, we are reminded that the history of American music still widely elides their contributions in favor of contemporary stars like Bing Crosby or Joan Baez. Visual material from the early 20th century, or rather the noticeable lack of such footage, plays into this failure: how many times have you seen Bob Dylan’s face compared to Sainte-Marie’s or Joy Harjo’s?
While this erasure does not obscure all indigenous-descended luminaries, like Jimi Hendrix and Robbie Robertson of The Band (who is featured here), it is an undeniable reality that the General Pop Music Industrial Complex has a greater-than-acknowledged responsibility to Indian musicians. Bainbridge and Maiorana try fiercely to vindicate their efforts through photographic montages and a vast array of testimonials.
The strongest guarantor for the film’s success is this outrageously great list of participants, which spans every artistic field except sculpture. Martin Scorsese, Iggy Pop, and George Clinton – colossal stars by any metric – attest to the importance of Link Wray’s banned song “Rumble” with religious admiration. Additional interview subjects run the gender, race, and fame gamut, suggesting a direct, concerted attempt at inclusivity and cultural conversation between multiple viewpoints. Histrionic contemporary artists like Rhiannon Giddens, Adam Beach, and Stevie Salas (the film’s executive producer) suggest the fervor of this generation’s growing hostility towards underrepresentation and bigotry. But their intensity pushes this otherwise poised film towards chaos.
After editors Jeremiah Hayes and Ben Duffield opted to overstuff the film with footage, the expansive conversation ends for all intents-and-purposes with a tacked-on finale set at the 2016 Standing Rock protests. This jagged, tangential climax speaks to the film’s obvious aspirations towards a more public profile, but complicates its value as a populist work.
The musical threads which Hayes and Duffield loop so skillfully elsewhere are lost in this sequence, abandoned with the haste and opportunism of “topical” filmmaking. Even the visual style changes: Maiorana’s polished, high-resolution cinematography from inside recording studios gives way to a sloppier, more handheld aesthetic that demands rather than compels. These changes add up to nothing so much as gimmicks, especially when paired with the eulogistic vocalizations on the soundtrack. While the filmmakers’ efforts to subsume this footage into the master narrative of white historical erasure are honorable and accurate, a more focused depiction of the Dakota Access Pipeline tragedy than the one here is called for.
Where Rumble hits home most powerfully is in its invocation of successes, not failures. The complicated legacy of favoring European-descended (or, as a small detour into Creole culture suggests, African-American) star narratives in our history is one with which all but the most ignorant of viewers will already be familiar. It is therefore the suggestion that un(der)-heralded American Indian musicians like Bailey or Jesse Ed Davis were unceasingly inspirational to, say, Tony Bennett or John Lennon, that is this film’s most radical contention. Bainbridge and Maiorana admirably manage to push this point through on several occasions, though just one example would have been sufficient justification for the vaguely overlong 97-minute runtime.
But Rumble is scheduled to air later this year on Canadian television and almost certainly on a digital platform here, so to further criticize its sometimes-distracted focus would be to cry over spilt milk. Already it has won a major filmmaking prize, a Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling following its world premiere last month at the Sundance Film Festival.
The question now is what degree of attention the feature will earn, and whether it will reach impact during a social moment as heated as the current one. Although the circumstances are dire, the United States of 2017 is the perfect political and cultural environment for a film that steps compassionately and intelligently into erased American Indian histories. We need this film and others not simply to act as “cause” films but, like Oscar®-nominated docs I Am Not Your Negro or 13th, to allow learned filmmakers to start rhetorical fires. With due respect to many oppressed groups, no domestic people’s need for such a fire is as strong as that of our indigenous citizens.