Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Heath Holland On...Rebel Beat: The Story of L.A. Rockabilly

by Heath Holland
If rockabilly music is cool, then a documentary about rockabilly MUST be straight out of the fridge, daddy-o.

Rebel Beat is a 2007 documentary that examines the rockabilly phenomenon and how it has developed over time. It carries the overly-dramatic tag line “They tried to kill our music, but they just can’t kill our soul.” It also attempts to ground the current rockabilly scene firmly in Los Angeles. Does the film succeed in its mission of evangelizing LA’s underground retro subculture, or is it just one more lonesome train on a lonesome track? Let’s find out.
Before we get started, do you know what rockabilly is? Rebel Beat believes that the retro ‘50s movement is so obscure and off the beaten path that most people on the street (literally, in this film’s case) have no idea. Just in case the premise of the documentary is correct and almost no one knows what this stuff is, a definition of the term “rockabilly” would read something like this: born in the American south during the 1950s but drawing on even earlier influences, rockabilly encapsulates many forms of post-World War II popular music, including country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, doo wop, and early rock and roll. It also draws on the gritty, heightened reality found in film noir and the roaming spirit embodied by the westerns of the previous two decades. The musicians that shaped the genre include everyone from Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Ritchie Valens, and a host of one-hit-wonders who built the sound that continued to evolve until The Beatles arrived and changed everything forever. Rockabilly is, therefore, a celebration of an earlier way of life and an expression of (mostly) harmless rebellion. We don’t need your rules, square!

I’m the target audience for this documentary; I listen to quite a bit of pre-Beatles music (though I adore the Beatles), I enjoy cruisin’ in my car, I take long road trips accompanied to oldies music, and I live slap in the middle of the area where this stuff was born. A couple of hours to the east is the Mississippi Delta, to the north is Nashville, and just a couple of hundred miles up the road is Memphis, the place where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins invented the Dixie Fried sound. I have a little bit of a problem, then, when this documentary claims that Los Angeles is the place where this stuff lives. The movie doesn’t even stick to the promise of the title, because the story we’re presented with plays out in lots of places, including Las Vegas, Tennessee, and even Europe and England, where rockabilly and the love of kitschy, retro-Americana is thriving.

So why not just call the movie Rebel Beat and be done with “The Story of LA Rockabilly?” Well, perhaps it’s because of the presence of several bitter Los Angeles rockers who still play bars on The Sunset Strip and who feel ownership over this subculture. That’s why we get several minutes of footage dedicated to old-timers (meaning they’re in their forties and fifties, and came to rockabilly in the seventies) complaining about how the younger generation of rockabilly musicians and fans --Brian Setzer is singled out -- have hair that is too high and have too many tattoos to be “pure.” These are the people, it seems, who would prefer their culture to die with them rather than see it change into something more mainstream, passed on in a modified form to a new generation.
It was when this jaded sense of ownership popped up in Rebel Beat that I decided that I had to write about the film, which I genuinely did enjoy quite a bit. I’ll get to the good in a minute, but right now I want to focus on entitlement and how often it pops up. It doesn’t matter what the actual phenomenon is: rockabilly, comic book culture, horror films, kaiju, Doctor Who, Star Wars, or career Santas (all examples of things I’ve seen elitism pop up in over the last 12 months) WHATEVER is a social talking point, there is always someone acting as a gatekeeper, checking IDs at the door and acting like they decide who gets to be a fan and who doesn’t. So if you like Superman but don’t have hundreds of Superman comic books in your basement, you’re somehow a lesser fan than someone who has more than you? How many Superman fans were there in 1938? If you like Guardians of the Galaxy but haven’t seen every James Gunn movie or read every single GOTG comic book in publication history, are you a second-class citizen? Some people think so. In Rebel Beat, a fan (who is too young to have been around in the 1950s) angrily expresses that every modern rockabilly fan should be kissing the feet of a 1970s rockabilly pioneer that I’d never heard of. Maybe they should and maybe they shouldn’t, but I have a hard time with anyone deciding for someone else what dues must be paid. I’ll decide that for myself, thank you very much. We’ve got an awful lot of culture police who are telling others that there’s some sort of caste system when it comes to enjoying something. These are the people who look down on newcomers to whatever it is they love, and these are the people need to get over themselves.

Then again, maybe I’m tilting at windmills again and the “we were here first” mentality that I perceive in the movie is barely there. Only a few people display the attitude, and it’s not indicative of the overall community, either in the movie or in the interactions I’ve had with real early rock fans. Luckily, the mentality of the rockabilly “lifers” doesn’t represent the overall attitude of the documentary, nor of the first-time director, Elizabeth Blozan. She seems eager to inform as many people as possible about the lifestyle and the camaraderie, and she does her best with the budget that she had to create a celebratory mood. IMDB estimates that budget to be around 50,000 dollars, so the coffers weren’t able to pay for the use of many famous recordings to fill out the soundtrack. This also means that there is very little archival footage of any of the musicians that paved the road to rockabilly. Given these limitations, Blozan is still able to take viewers on a surprisingly engrossing ride. It’s cool, because she was limited mainly to newer, independent bands from the Los Angeles area, and I discovered several groups that wouldn’t have been on my radar otherwise.
The film opens with a pretty detailed origin of rockabilly and how it was born of many different styles and embodies the spirit of rebellion, then moves swiftly into a celebration of the culture. Thankfully, this is where the film chooses to spend the bulk of its time, introducing us to people from all walks of life as they discuss what draws them to the scene. They want to have a good time and dance without getting into fights. They want to drink and not get trashed. They like older, analog ways of living. They like cars that are a mile long and are made tough stuff. Their idea of a hipster is not someone who is too cool for something and does it ironically. On the contrary, these guys and gals are about as earnest as you can get. The whole thing feels very refreshing to me, and it embraces ideals of hard work, honesty, integrity, and doing things you can take pride in.

Because fifties culture is still a big part of the Hispanic lifestyle, the documentary spends a fair amount of time on the lasting impact that it continues to play in many communities, and we meet some young people in East LA (hey, Los Angeles!) who are choosing to live their life free from drugs and gangs. Trading guns for guitars and choosing long black Cadillacs instead of coffins, these guys make a clear choice every single day to embrace standards and ideals that are considered old-fashioned by a lot of their peers.

All in all, rockabilly culture encapsulates an awful lot of cool things that are hard not to love, and Rebel Beat does what it can to highlight as much of it as possible. Hot rods, Hawaii, Tikis and totem poles, bright colors, leather jackets, cowboy hats, drag racing, Converse shoes, record collecting, pinup models, whiskey, and the mythical Old West all encompass the aesthetic of rockabilly culture. You know that diner where Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace do the twist in Pulp Fiction? Jack Rabbit Slims is a rockabilly heaven, so it’s not a coincidence that Quentin Tarantino is a huge rockabilly guy.
There’s one more thing I want to bring up about the documentary. A Betty-Page-lookalike was used heavily in the promotion of the movie, wearing what appears to be a child’s red cowboy hat and a tiny, fringed bikini (also belonging to a child?). She graces the DVD cover and the movie posters, and my DVD of the film even came with an autographed postcard of Betty in which she advised me to “keep Alabama rocking.” I sure will, Betty, don’t you worry, but I’m a little disconcerted that Betty appears in ZERO seconds of actual film footage and plays no role at all in the doc. Photos of her appear several times, for a few seconds, on some of the movie’s chapter screens. I think she is literally there to catch the eyes of dudes from the DVD shelf. Is the power of rock and roll not enough to bring viewers in? No, it isn’t? Okay, fair enough.

We’ve pretty much covered the talking points of Rebel Beat, and we find ourselves back at the idea that this is an underground enthusiasm. The documentary would have us believe that the rockabilly crowd is a tiny faction of the LA counter-culture (where it lives, breathes, and was born…right.) and that most of the world at large has no idea any of this is happening. And maybe that’s true, but I give people a lot more credit than that. After all, I see (and attend, when I can) events all over the place that leads me to believe that the retro-‘50s scene is alive and well, and actually bigger than it’s ever been. Perhaps it’s true that at one point in time LA became one of just a few hubs for original rock and roll. Today, however, I believe our culture is made up of nothing but different subcultures, and I see quite a few people like me who refuse labels and embrace the past, bringing it with us into the future. Then there’s that unfortunate tagline about how “they tried to kill our music, but they just can’t kill our soul.” Who tried to do this? The movie doesn’t say, but that sentiment is indicative of the victims some of those involved see themselves to be.
While I don’t believe Rebel Beat: The story of L.A. Rockabilly does the best job of presenting the current state of rockabilly and the retro-fifties lifestyle, I think it more than makes up for it by showing how much fun the dedicated community is. The audience for this is decidedly niche, but keep in mind that Roger Ebert said “it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.” Rebel Beat is an endearing and incredibly earnest -- albeit occasionally raw and possessive -- look at a bunch of unpretentious people that I’d be glad to hang out with any day of the week, and I won’t let a couple of bad apples spoil the whole bunch. If you’re still reading this (congratulations!) and you think watching a documentary about the enduring power of rock and roll is almost as much fun as meeting Chopper and Dex on Main Street at midnight for a drag race out of town, then this film might be a ticket to Coolsville. It can be found on DVD at


  1. Great article. As someone who has attended Viva Las Vegas and performed music for some hardcore rockabilly crowds I've seen first hand the kind of scene gatekeeping you talk about. It's particularly frustrating when music that is about rebellion and freedom develops a strict dress code and intolerance to other forms expression. It happens in hip hop and lots of other scenes. It just seems odd.
    However, this does seem like an entertaining doc. I'll be looking for it to pop up on the way too many streaming services I subscribe to.

  2. I absolutely have to see this movie. It sounds like it would push every button I have. I wouldn't say I'm at all a connoisseure of rockabilly, but I love Bruce Springsteen and DBT so that has to count for something. And Dwight Yoakam. If that counts. Which it does.

    1. I was just listening to some Dwight Yoakam a few days ago. That dude is TOTAL rockabilly. Plus, he's in tight with a lot of the LA punk bands and goes way back with several of them.

  3. Heath, fantastic article. I really dig these music docs; definitely going to have to check this one out.

    A couple to pass on to you, maybe you have not seen them yet.

    The first being "Sound City" (2013). Directed by Dave Grohl (yeah, that Dave Grohl) it takes a look at the famous(infamous) Sound City Studios in Van Nuys California. It's where Nirvana recorded Nevermind, as well as many other artists: Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor the list goes on. Great doc, goes along well with his HBO series "Sonic Highways" which I also recommend.

    Also of note, "Fuzz: The Sound that Changed the World" (2007) an in depth look at fuzz effects pedals. A bit of history and a look at some of the current boutique manufacturers. Real music/guitar player nerd stuff here, but really enjoyable.

    1. Nice! I'm familiar with Sound City, but I've never heard of Fuzz. That sounds amazing. I'm going to have to check that out. Thanks!

  4. Hello,
    Rockabilly is as much an attitude as it is a state of mind and a choice of style. Live it, love it.