The path from Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda to the Sundance Film Festival isn't well traveled, but a fascinating and little-known topic led the way for Tim Johnson.
That topic was the deep and widespread influence of Native American musicians and singers on decades of American popular music, including rock, jazz and the blues.
"Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World" was developed as a concept by Tim Johnson (Mohawk), who grew up in North Tonawanda, and Stevie Salas (Apache) who met years ago when Johnson hired Salas as a contemporary music adviser at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Both are executive producers of the documentary, which had its premiere Jan. 22 at the Yarrow Hotel Theater in Park City, Utah, as part of the Sundance Film Festival.
A few days after his whirlwind trip to the festival, where "Rumble" was set to be shown several more times to sold-out crowds, Johnson was still marveling at the experience. Before the movie started, he said, "The atmosphere in the room was one of expectation and intrigue. The audience didn't know what they were going to see, it was even a little bit electric. And because we're talking about popular music, there was an expectation that this was going to be enjoyable, because of the music involved."
After the final scenes played, Johnson said, "That audience gave it a very warm reception."
Johnson, a 1976 graduate of North Tonawanda High School, earned an associate's degree in Communications and Media Arts from Niagara County Community College in 1979 before earning a bachelor's degree in Communications from SUNY Buffalo State College. “I’m very proud to be representing Buffalo and the Niagara region at Sundance,” said Johnson, who was born in Niagara Falls, raised in North Tonawanda, and lived in downtown Buffalo during the early years of his professional career. He attended the festival with his wife, Lisa, and their adult children, Ryan and Chelsey.
"Rumble," produced by Rezolution Pictures, was one of 113 selected from the 13,782 submitted in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.
The seed for the groundbreaking documentary was planted when Johnson and Salas, working together at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, mined Brian Wright-McLeod's 2005 Encyclopedia of Native Music. Johnson said, "We wanted to find out if there were enough Native artists to fashion an exhibit around, but also how deep was their influence." They asked Chris Turner, a researcher and musician, to explore the topic. A few weeks later, Turner told Johnson, "I think you guys are on to something."
The Smithsonian exhibit, “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians In Popular Culture,” was shown both in Washington and New York City. But when it closed, said Johnson, "We didn't want this idea to die with the exhibit, so we sought out a film company to work with. The people at Rezolution Pictures had a real intellectual ability to understand the topic, which is consistent with Smithsonian standards, so we moved the idea over there."
"Rumble" was directed by Catherine Bainbridge, co-directed by Alfonso Maiorana, and produced by Christina Fon, Lisa M. Roth, Bainbridge and Linda Ludwick. "They did a tremendous amount of research too," said Johnson.
Although by painful necessity much information didn't make the final cut of the 96-minute film, Johnson was tremendously impressed with what he saw on the screen. "It was expertly produced," he said. "The cinematography was excellent, as was the audio blending of sounds, music and interviews. It was just a beautifully done film. On the content side, it's very rich. Being able to just sit there and watch it, I realized how deep and meaningful it was, as well as being new to most people. There are real surprises in the film about some of the Native artists who made these remarkable contributions to shaping the sound of popular music as we know it."
The film highlights the work of Native music icons like Charley Patton, Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson and Randy Castillo of Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe. Others interviewed include Martin Scorsese, Quincy Jones, Buddy Guy, Tony Bennett, Steven Van Zandt, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Robert Trujillo of Metallica, Wayne Kramer of MC5, Ivan and Cyril Neville, John Trudell, Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, Derek Trucks, George Clinton, Iggy Pop, Marky Ramone, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Slash of Guns N’ Roses, Jackson Browne, Rhiannon Giddens and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Johnson spoke of two people whose deep influence on American popular music it is explored in "Rumble."
Jesse Ed Davis was a Comanche-Kiowa guitarist who played with all four Beatles, Jackson Browne and many other stars before he died at age 43 in 1988. "He was an amazing talent, a shining light, who contributed to all this music that we all know and have all heard, and who was respected by the leading rock musicians in the world," said Johnson. "John Lennon loved Jesse Ed Davis, and they did a lot of collaboration on music."
Mildred Bailey was a jazz singer and radio program host in the 1930s and 1940s who helped young artists, including Bing Crosby, and developed a unique sound. Johnson said, "She was a huge influence on Tony Bennett," who spoke to the documentary crew in his studio on Central Park South. "He said from the age of 16 to 20, the only thing he listened to was Mildred Bailey," said Johnson. "He learned his vocal phrasing, improvisation and style from Mildred Bailey, and all sorts of other female jazz singers took their style from her. We never knew she was a Native, she was Coeur D'Alene, from the northwest. She had all this tremendous influence, and affected the sound and stylings of jazz."
Johnson calls the web of widespread influences and collaborations "the beauty of American contemporary music -- it's a mix of all these different cultural contributions. And isn't it interesting in this day and age when we are having all these issues about ethnicity, we don't stop to think that the music that everybody loves is a mixture of folks from Europe, folks from Africa and the people who were here, the Native people."
Rezolution Pictures is submitting "Rumble" to other festivals and a targeted theatrical release this year, with television and other distribution to follow next year. As the documentary becomes more readily available, Johnson said, "I would encourage classrooms and university courses that deal with American popular music to take a look at the film. Rock and roll the blues, jazz, each of them have native contributions to them."