Like the 2013 music documentary “Muscle Shoals,” which posited a poetic connection between hit songs and water — in that case, the Tennessee River and the Fame recording studio of Muscle Shoals, Ala. — “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” also concerns itself with a kind of metaphorical musical tributary, albeit one that is not literally wet. Its theme is how Native Americans — their musical style and their musicianship — have fed the great river of American popular song, from rock to blues, jazz, country and funk.
The film makes its case most eloquently early in the film, when playing a recording by Charley Patton, a blues guitarist and singer who likely has indigenous ancestry. As Tuscarora singer Pura Fé points out the unmistakable Indian rhythms and vocal qualities, you might find yourself thinking, “How could I have missed that before?”
This is not dry ethnomusicology, however. Rather, co-directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana offer brief (only occasionally repetitive) profiles of musicians with Native ancestry, several of whom may be widely known.
Half-Shawnee power-chordpioneer Link Wray, for instance — whose 1958 instrumental hit “Rumble” lends the film its title — is one such guitar hero. But the film also spotlights such Native American musicians as Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo; heavy metal drummer Randy Castillo; blues singer Howlin’ Wolf; folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie; rocker Jimi Hendrix; the soul-singing Neville Brothers; and guitarist Stevie Salas, who is also one of the film’s producers.
The 1970s pop group Redbone, which was known for performing in clothing inspired by traditional Native garb, sometimes opened their TV appearances with an Indian dance before breaking into one of their hits. The group’s song “Come and Get Your Love” experienced renewed attention in 2014 when that 1973 hit was featured in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But how many people who hear that toe-tapping song today automatically can hear the Indian music that courses through it?
About a musical genre not known for quiet contemplation, “Rumble” asks us to be still for a moment and to listen to the heartbeat — at once familiar and newly strange — that pumps the lifeblood that flows through the songs this country is known for.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some strong language, drug references and brief nudity. 102 minutes.