this documentary has been kicking around for a few years now and I watched it last night. If you haven’t seen it, I think you can view here on NYC’s PBS link free for the next 11 days. Many of the reviews have been positive like this one, and this one, a more cautionary one here, and finally, another one here. While most reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are positive, some do acknowledge problems with the movie and there certainly are problems. I’ve given the movie 3 stars; one star for movie, one for the live music played by indigenous musicians, and one for the fact that Jimi Hendrix appears and that always gets a star from me no matter what. Read on if you want to hear about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Skip if you haven’t seen it yet and plan to.
In two interviews I’ve seen online with director/producer Catherine Bainbridge, the stated goal or what drew her to doing “this story” was, and I quote, “Some of the greatest rock stars in the world know about the influence of these incredible Indigenous musicians but the rest of us do not.” LOL…okay. That isn’t too arrogant I guess; assuming what millions of people know. I’ve known for the better part of 40 years that Jimi Hendrix and Robbie Robertson (two of the features in the film) had/have Native heritage and I am not the only person who can say this. As a matter of fact, Hendrix recorded an amazing song on his first album in 1967 titled I Don’t Live Today, dedicated to the modern Native American experience. It’s a shame that this documentary opted to be the 1,333,667,888th media presentation to use the iconic Jimi at Woodstock motif instead of pointing out the fact that Jimi recorded probably the first and definitely one of the best ever paeans to the struggle of indigenous people, but that’s what it did. The kids can’t learn if the teachers suck, knowhatimsayin?
A big part of why I don’t think this film deserves a better rating is because I don’t like the “oral tradition” formula for making movies (or documentaries) and I’ve said so before, most specifically in my review of Elvis: The Searcher from last year. I find all of the jump cuts to people I completely don’t care about distracting to a coherent narrative. The idea behind the movie (which is common with these documentaries) was to get as many famous musicians in the movie to underscore the value of the subject profiled (because that reinforces the already-stated central theme). In the segment devoted to Link Wray and his classic instrumental Rumble, Iggy Pop lets the world know that this is the song that made him decide to be a musician….Who gives a shit? Is this segment (movie) about him or is it about Link Wray? If Rumble was such an amazing musical moment, why does it need to be validated by Iggy Pop? Robbie Robertson is also onboard breathlessly relating that, “a song came on the radio, an instrumental, and it changed everything!” Yea…it didn’t, but Robbie breathlessly related similar sentiments in the Elvis documentary so I guess back in the day EVERYTHING WAS CHANGING every two minutes. It must have been hard to know how to dress.
The comment by Robertson points to another problem and that is the overselling and exaggeration of people’s accomplishments and abilities. It’s one thing to be passionate and/or in love with something personally, it’s quite another to be willfully inaccurate to the point of stupidity. While Rumble was certainly an influential moment, it didn’t change everything. These hyperbolic moments are what change documentaries into slick, late night infomercials. In a later segment on guitarist Jessie Ed Davis, ex-Rolling Stone writer David Fricke intones, “…he played great, tight, dynamic blues and the British Rock aristocracy love this. This is something they can’t get naturally. They have to import it…” Given that Davis migrated to England at the height of the British blues boom in the late 1960s, it’s stupid to suggest that Beck, Clapton, Page, Green, Taylor, Richards, Blackmore, Kossoff, et. al. couldn’t play the blues well enough….to sell millions of records. Maybe it’s a shame we live in that world where the blues on Led Zeppelin 1 has sold more than everything Jessie Ed Davis ever released because he was a very tasty guitar player, no doubt, but we do live in that world and no amount of pretending in a documentary is going to change that.
The performances and interviews with people like Buffy Saint Marie, The Neville Brothers, Rhiannon Giddens, Pura Fé, and Taj Mahal were great; the main reason to watch the movie. There should have been much more of this; more Jimi, Nokie Edwards and The Ventures, Rick Medlocke and Blackfoot and down home ordinary people doing their thing with voice and instrument. The explorations of Native music intertwining with Blues rhythms is a topic that deserves its own (well-done) documentary. Likewise for all of the socio-political points the film tries to explore. By the end of the Jessie Ed Davis segment the piling on of artists in an attempt to rack up a body count to further validate indigenous contributions begins to wear thin. I wish this film style would die, seriously. Just show the musician or performer performing, talk to principals, do a few more location shots, and ditch the supposed “experts”. The endless bloviating and hagiography by talking heads is annoying and exhausting and I find it always detracts from whatever positive experience a film like this is trying to bring.