CreditBruce Steinberg/Kino Lorber
It’s been a terrific few years for music documentaries, and that winning streak continues with “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.”
Sharing the same spirit of “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Searching for Sugar Man,” which both put overlooked performers center stage, this film examines the influence of Native Americans on popular music. What at first seems like a thin topic — quick, name two American Indian musicians — becomes a master class in the mixing of cultures.
The survey starts with the guitarist Link Wray, who was Shawnee. Wray “made an indelible mark on the whole evolution of where rock ’n’ roll was going to go,” Robbie Robertson of the Band says. Wray’s 1958 single, “Rumble,”was banned from airplay in several cities amid worries that it would incite teenage gang violence (despite being a wordless, instrumental tune), and Wray’s guitar line seems to echo in every power chord you’ve heard.
Charley Patton, who profoundly shaped the blues, is profiled in another section before the film moves to Mildred Bailey, Jesse Ed Davis, members of the band Redbone and others, all of whom had Indian heritage. We hear about childhoods spent listening and learning from grandparents who passed on traditions, and of discrimination encountered in the broader world. “Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell,” Mr. Robertson, who is part Mohawk, says of a prevailing attitude when he was younger.
Shorter sections explore American Indian rhythms and beats that seeped into popular music, and the deep connections the players forged with African-American performers. Newsreels and old black-and-white photos provide historical context, and interviews add plenty of energy. Martin Scorsese and Iggy Pop offer insights, while Steven Van Zandt’s enthusiasm is contagious. After hearing a story by Jackson Browne, you’ll listen to his “Doctor My Eyes” with different ears.
Directed by Catherine Bainbridge, “Rumble” takes a few serious turns even as it remains lively throughout. If you couldn’t name two Native American musicians at the beginning of the documentary, you’ll remember at least a half-dozen after the end. And it’s a good bet you’ll be searching for their albums, too.