by Heath Holland
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.