Link Wray’s 1958 single “Rumble,” a guitar-driven instrumental, was banned from key U.S. radio markets for fear that its loping, wordless swagger would encourage juvenile delinquency. The grab-you-by-the-solar-plexus track has galvanized generations of rock and punk musicians. It’s also a potent entry point for Catherine Bainbridge’s new documentary, a vibrant survey of a criminally overlooked aspect of American popular music: the crucial contributions of Native Americans.
Wray was a North Carolina Shawnee with childhood memories of Ku Klux Klan terror. A conflicted combination of artistic expression and the need to hide is at the core of Bainbridge’s film. While celebrating the music and ethnic heritage of Wray and nine other performers, she and co-director Alfonso Maiorana show that many American Indians chose to identify as African or Mexican.
Not every chapter in the loosely organized film delivers the punch of its eye-opening early sequences, which explore the infusion of indigenous rhythms into the blues of former slaves. But there are compelling mini-portraits of stars — Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson — as well as figures who aren’t household names but whose influence runs deep, among them Delta bluesman Charley Patton and jazz singer Mildred Bailey.
With its rich range of genres, personalities (including the late great activist-musician John Trudell) and political history, “Rumble” could easily fill an extended series. Inevitably cursory, it’s nonetheless a fascinating introduction to the ways that core components of Americana wouldn’t be eradicated. Or silenced.
‘Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World’
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles