The making of RUMBLE was a team effort, all of them passionate about bringing an important story to the world. Director-producer Catherine Bainbridge and co-director Alfonso Maiorana worked with Executive Producer Stevie Salas, a Native American musician, film composer and producer, as well as Tim Johnson, former Associate Director for Museum Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, to bring this long overdue story to the screen: how Native Americans influenced popular music, going deep into the Indigenous foundations of rock.
RUMBLE is a “vibrant survey of a criminally overlooked aspect of American popular music,” says the LA Times. It’s “a master class in the mixing of cultures,” adds The New York Times. “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.”
Director Bainbridge won a Peabody Award for her previous Independent Lens documentary Reel Injun about Native stereotypes in Hollywood films. With a little help from her friends, she talked to us about the making of RUMBLE, how they told this sweeping story, and how there could easily be a sequel or series.
Why did you make this film?
Catherine Bainbridge, EP, Producer, Director, Writer: It is rare when a great idea comes your way, especially when a great idea that crosses over into the mainstream comes your way. We knew RUMBLE had the power to touch a very wide audience with an important story that has never been told–so we jumped in with both feet–and never looked back. We are in a time of reckoning with the true history of North America – built on 4 million black slaves and stolen Native American land. Music is a powerful window into those difficult stories – because music speaks to the soul and to our higher selves so we can be open.
Stevie Salas, Executive Producer (Apache): I spent my whole professional career trying to find a balance between the madness (which was really fun) and being artistically and spiritually grounded (enough to still enjoy myself but not lose myself).
To keep that balance I would bounce in and out of Indian Country. I am a Native American musician who spent years searching out Native American players. I have been lucky enough to work with many of the biggest rock stars in the world who would often tell me incredible stories about the Native American musicians that they loved and often worshipped. The more I learned the more I wanted the world to know.
Tim Johnson, Executive Producer (Mohawk): RUMBLE was made to reveal the depth, breadth, and substance of Indigenous contributions to the development of American popular music. What began as an initial effort to recognize the career accomplishments of select Native musicians, grew with inquiry, research, and discovery into a profound and revelatory awakening that the blues, jazz, folk, and rock & roll were nourished by Native American influences.
Alfonso Maiorana, Co-Director, Co-Writer, Director of Photography: First of all, my passion for music and its history has played a huge part in my artistic life as a filmmaker. Secondly, the opportunity and importance of making such a historic film was the greatest motivation. Retracing American history through the influence and contribution of Native American music was a conscious duty. Allowing the story to be told predominantly through an Indigenous voice, thus celebrating these incredible iconic musicians and innovators, is a narrative that needs to be respected.
Who do you hope your film impacts the most?
Catherine: I want people – especially Indigenous people – to feel empowered by knowing the truth about history, I want young Indigenous people to feel pride through this film. And I want everyone else to be joyful that these unknown Native American superstars are now being acknowledged and celebrated and are now taking their rightful place in American music history.
Stevie: At first I wanted Native American people to know that they had some amazing role models that had inspired the world but then as the story grew I wanted the world to know how these musicians inspired the world solidifying their rightful place in history.
Tim: Because American popular music is global in its cultural impact, the film will serve to raise awareness that not only did Indigenous peoples survive colonization, but also participated in the shaping of American art and culture. The American identity, so beautifully expressed through its music, must also now be understood in the context of the American Indian experience. That’s powerful.
Alfonso: I hope the film impacts all the First Nations across every continent. If RUMBLE can create a sense of pride within the Indigenous community and open the minds of the rest of the western world, maybe through music we can understand and acknowledge their history, in turn, revisit our own. Suffice to say, art is the biggest healer and the true recognition of the Native American’s contribution to music is the first giant step to an inclusive and peaceful future.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
Catherine: One of the biggest hurdles in producing a film like this, one with a lot of famous people in it was getting through to them, getting access to them for interviews.
Imagine, we started contacting Martin Scorsese’s people in October 2015. He liked the idea and wanted to participate. Finally, by April 2016, his office said, “Okay, we’re ready for you, come next week.” Our crew had to jump and get down to New York fast! These people are busy, it takes a long time to schedule even if they are willing to participate.
An unthinkable added challenge that I had to deal with during the production was my teenaged daughter getting cancer. She’s fine now, but as you can imagine, it was not easy for me.
In making a film like RUMBLE, a huge challenge was to whittle down almost 200 hours of original footage that included 124 interviews, thousands of archival images and film excerpts to a reasonable length for a film. We had to cut so much, it hurt!!
How did you gain the trust of all the different musicians, historians, performers and the like who appear in your film?
Catherine: Gaining the trust of the subjects in the film was one of the easiest things to do; it was getting access to some of them, that was hard! With a short pitch about what the film is about — the fact that we were revealing something about music history that is so important, yet so unknown — our subjects were, for the most part, onboard from the outset.
When we told people about how some of the greatest singers, rock stars in the world – Jimmy Page, Steven Tyler, Tony Bennett etc — know about the influence of these incredible Indigenous musicians but the rest of us do not, they wanted to hear more. And they wanted to give their own voice to help give our message credibility.
This could’ve been an even more epic film. What were some things you liked in RUMBLE that didn’t make the cut?
Catherine: Some of the scenes and subjects that we would have loved to include:
• A Country / Appalachian section;
• Hip-hop section with Melle Mel, Brother Ernie, & Buffy Sainte-Marie;
• The story of Hayes Pond (When the KKK were after Native people in North Carolina and they were routed out) and more scenes from North Carolina with the Deer Clan Singers, and elders like Chief Leon Locklear;
• A Tribe Called Red interview – they are so smart;
• The New Orleans music scene in Congo Square with Joy Harjo and Grayhawk Perkins;
• Many other interviews such as with Arlo Guthrie, Rita Coolidge, etc.;
• The stories from Oklahoma, the end of the Trail of Tears, where so much great music came from.
👉 See our list of other Native American musicians you should know, and accompanying Spotify playlist. 🎧
What are your own favorite scenes or moments in RUMBLE?
Catherine: One of my favorite scenes is the one with Pura Fe, when she listens to the Charlie Patton record, the hair on my arms stands up. Her proclamation of “that’s Indian music!” is so powerful, and is what film is all about – we can hear the Native influence for ourselves. It’s not just interviews and words – the audience can hear it.
Another one is the North Carolina scenes – especially the music scene on the porch of the Archibald Monk Plantation in North Carolina, with Rhiannon Giddens and members of Ulali, all who come from mixed African, Native, and European heritage and together represent the very soul of the origins of American music.
Some of the most impactful interviews were with Tony Bennett & Iggy Pop, in New Orleans and filming the Great Chief Monk Boudreaux…
Filming with the great John Trudell was both a joy and a sadness, as he had passed away a few months later. John was also in our previous feature doc, Reel Injun.
What are some of the most common questions and comments you’ve gotten when you’ve shown the film so far?
Catherine: The most common question for us filmmakers at screenings, was: “Will there be a sequel? A series?” There are so many influential Native American musicians that we did not have time to feature in RUMBLE. We hope to do a series highlighting several missing chapters in the history of American music – such as the strong and unknown Indigenous and African influences in country music (Hey, Hank Williams was part Choctaw!) the powerful Indigenous connection in Hispanic American music (Indigenous people mixed with Spanish), the story of the beautiful, tragic and haunting folk singer Karen Dalton who Bob Dylan considered to be the heart of early folk music in New York City, and many more fascinating stories of how American music is much more mixed than we think.
Another remark that we commonly get is “Thank you for telling me about an important part of our history that I had no idea about – and should have!”
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
Do the Right Thing. Brazil. The Princess Bride.
What film/project(s) are you working on next?
Catherine: Red Fever is a new feature documentary about cultural appropriation that I am directing with the great Neil Diamond, who directed Reel Injun (a really witty documentary about the image of Natives in Hollywood films). We are now taking on the subject of cultural appropriation: when is it a collaboration? When is it theft? The film looks at these questions through the lends of the ongoing obsession with Native culture, history, spirituality, art, symbols and worldview – but the debate extends to all manner of sharing between cultures. Humans are inspired by each other – and we can’t legislate and forbid that – but when does it become stealing? Red Fever completes the trilogy of documentaries that started with Reel Injun, followed by RUMBLE.
We are also doing a documentary on the history of White Privilege in North America – where does it come from? What is it? As an Irish Canadian from a working class immigrant background, I take on the question of how my people turned. We were once hated and not considered white. We used to have common cause with black folks at the bottom of the economic ladder. What happened? What systems were built to separate us from black people? And which of those systems are still around today?
[Then] we are doing a high seas adventurous Mi’kmaq (Micmac) fishing series set on the wilds of the east coast, where fishing is under threat, and families must balance protecting the environment with making a living on the sea.