Documentary filmmaker Brent Huff has tackled some pretty intense material — teenage drug abuse, the pressure cooker politics of fashion modeling — but his latest feature, “It’s a Rockabilly World,” veers off the beaten path and plunges deep into one of the more colorful and oddly regimented American pop music cults.
The film, which screens at Burbank’s Viva Cantina on Saturday, Nov. 14, is a dizzying tour through a hyper-fetishistic underworld whose acolytes encircle the globe.
“It’s weird how this came about. About two years ago, Pat Stack, a friend who ended up as producer of this, had tickets to this rockabilly event at the Ventura fairgrounds,” Huff said. “I went up there with him and it was like a giant costume party. It was packed. The pinup girls, the pompadours, tattoos everywhere, hot rods and the music was great.”
“One guy, Teddy Boy Greg, had his entire face tattooed,” Huff said. “He is a master barber and his nose is a barber pole. He’s the most hated man in the rockabilly scene, gets into fights everywhere he goes, always get the crap beaten out of him. If you took him to a party, it’d just stop. Every time he comes on screen, you can hear an audible gasp from the audience.
“So, here was this entire thriving subculture. I was hooked.”
Music is at the heart of the subject. “We went to Viva Cantina in Burbank, because that was a big rockabilly hang-out and I noticed this older guy with big black Elvis hair,” Huff said. “I felt kind of bad for him at first, but he got up to sing and he was amazing. That was Jimmy Angel, and we had to put him in the movie. We also have rockabilly guitar legend Danny B. Harvey and Dominique Pruitt, a young singer who’s really good and so serious about rockabilly that she has Wanda Jackson’s name tattooed on her neck.”
“Drake Bell is also a big part of the movie — he used to be a Nickelodeon star, on the show ‘Josh & Drake,’ and he travels around to schools all over the country, playing music and educating kids about rockabilly. No one over 25 has any idea who he is — but he has seven million Facebook followers.”
“We went to shoot at Viva Las Vegas, which is the Rockabilly Mecca. It’s a three-day concert event in Las Vegas every Easter and thousands of people come from all over the world. The music was great. You can’t be in a bad mood when you listen to it.”
The reality of mid-century Southern rockabilly was just as seedy and threatening as the era’s moral crusaders depicted it. Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis were artistic giants, yes, but they were also out of control, drunken speed freaks who favored the company of young teenage girls (respectively marrying children aged 15 and 13) and were markedly prone to hell-raising and disruptive, violent behavior.
Fortunately, little of that has carried over to the contemporary sect.
“There is really no drug use, it’s all Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Huff said. “If you talk to the women, they all say they want to live in a simpler time, stay home, cook and clean and let the men be the breadwinners. I also touch on their use of the Confederate Flag — it had to with everything that’s gone on recently — which they don’t see as a racist symbol, but as one of Southern pride.”
“The film focuses on the various aspects of the subculture, which really don’t mix with each other as much you would expect,” Huff said. “It’s more like they need each other to survive. It’s about one-third music, one-third pinup girls and one-third hot rods and tattoos.”
Ultimately, it’s the age old struggle for identity and sense of self.
“They want to stand out but they really stick together,” Huff said. “They all say it’s a very open scene, with no judgment, but they argue with each other all the time. They have very specific rules. You can’t wear Wranglers, it has to be Levi’s, and they’re all on the lookout for ‘sillybillies,’ people who they feel are pretending to know rockabilly but really don’t.
“Everyone wants to belong, and they feel like rockabilly is a place where they can belong, that’s not so mainstream, and sets them apart. We all want to be important and this allows them that.
Who: “It’s a Rockabilly World,” a documentary movie screening; with Jimmy Angel, Dominique Pruitt, Cody Bryant
Where: Viva Cantina, 900 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank
When: Saturday, Nov. 14, screening at 6 p.m., music at 8 p.m.
More info: (818) 848-8810, vivacantina.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin’ Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”