On Halloween 2000, Spindrift Records USA UK invited thousands of psychos from all over the world to gather at the Birch Hill in Old Bridge, NJ for the first New York Big Psychobilly Rumble.
There has never been anything of its kind before. It would be three days of Psychobilly, Surf, Garage, Rockabilly and Mayhem... caught on film.
This is how American Rumble starts. Being a fan, student, and artist in music and film, American Rumble offered a tantalizing opportunity to fill in the gaps of my understanding and awareness of psychobilly, and to see the film makers work their magic to enlighten and entertain an even less aware audience with the music, story and history of this genre and subculture.
Opening with a welcome from Reverend Doom who is followed by a montage of sexy vampiristic imagery, demonic overtones, and stylized cemeteries, sets a strong gothic undertone. It sets the audience up to receive revelations of what these images mean, how they fit in with psychobilly, and perhaps have a glimpse of understanding into this subculture and its music.
Documentaries of subcultures are sought to gain understanding of people and places that are foreboding, unapproachable or unwelcoming in their day-to-day reality. American Rumble puts the ownership of familiarity and understanding of the subject matter on the audience. For this, it can best be appreciated by fans who already have a relationship and knowledge of the music, the bands represented, and the lifestyle.
From the get-go the film treats the audience as outsider. Treated to taunts and hostility, as if they are unwelcome, even to view the film, by an obscenity-laden in-your-face, confrontational, psyche-out by Hillbilly Werewolf, lead singer for the first band and the emcee for the event. Throughout his emceeing he is semi-incoherent and confrontational with the show-goers. "I think they're a bunch of fucking assholes myself, but, whatever." was the reaction of one showgoer to a Hillbilly tirade.
He, however, is the thread that holds the continuity of the film's first two thirds together. Hillbilly Werewolf and his tirades are breaks before new performers, each introduced with stylized out takes by Cult of the Psychic Fetus' Reverend Doom*. The film focuses on each bands' performance. However, incomplete time is given to each artist, and their performances are often interrupted and interspliced with band member and audience out takes.
None of the interview-style out takes leave the film audience with any greater understanding of psychobilly, or the players more than, "Ahh, it's shit, I will miss them." "How would you describe you music to someone who never heard your band before?" - "Shakey pants rock and roll...Everybody just drinks beer until they shit themselves." "Anything you'd like to add to the interview?" "Ummmm." "You're going to say something about beer." Because of this structure American Rumble exists in limbo. Not quite a documentary, and not quite a concert film. The out takes offer great opportunity to drive the insightful side and answer the question, "what is psychobilly?" Unfortunately, they do not.
To compound an encumbered structure, the audience's tour guide to the world of Psychobilly switches without segue from Hillbilly Werewolf, removed from the viewer by distance and attitude to an up-close interviewer. The attractive female interviewer's identity is not overtly revealed, and for the last third of the film she is in a full red-body paint scantily attired devil costume. At first glance her presence can only be assumed to be to up the eye-candy T&A factor Not until reading the promotional materials would I learn this is Mistress Persephone, a professional bi-coastal Dominatrix. However, the connection between S&M and psychobilly is never explained to illustrate her selection as interviewer beyond being eye-candy.
The disjointed rhythm of the film is further compounded in the segue footage of the daytime activities between the festivals' Friday and Saturday performances. Highlighting Sparky, singer for Demented are Go, incoherent and disoriented, he starts a pine barrens fire. While local police and firefighters secure the area, Sparky and other parking-lot wanderers join in showing their penises to the camera. Later, Mark (Sparky) is arrested for grabbing a young girl dressed as a witch at a local shopping mall, thus canceling their appearance at the Rumble. He was arrested under the sexual predatory laws of NJ because the girl was a minor.
There were slight undertones in the film that this was an unfair arrest, but they are quickly brushed aside. The film cites fear of a riot at the event upon the announcement of Demented Are Go's cancellation. It cannot be determined if this moment is under or over dramatized as it is given little screen time and no audience reactions are solicited.
The last third of the film meanders, but it does convey the feeling of being at the dwindling hours of a three day festival. A little tired, repetitive, and winding down the time.
For fans of Psychobilly who have intimate knowledge of the lifestyle and music, this film would be a welcome addition to their video collection for its impressive lineup. Also, it captures the last performances of some well-known Psychobilly bands. Overall, the sound quality is impressive given the small venue, especially considering the low-to-mid quality of comparable independently made concert-based films. The cinematography can hold its own even compared to films tackling the same subject matter with far bigger budgets.
American Rumble is a daring and commendable attempt to open the viewer to the world of Psychobilly. Filming a 3-day festival under any condition, especially those of a small club, and creating a work that gives equal justice to all those participating, all while trying to document surrounding events, is a monumental undertaking. When successful films like this are held up along Woodstock and Gimme Shelter and stand not only as musical entertainment, but as time capsules capturing the surrounding social tapestry.
American Rumble, in its enthusiasm for the music and the personalities it documents, loses focus on the message it wishes to convey. Because of this, explanation and insight of what Psychobilly is, where it comes from, and what binds it together is lost. Created by those with an intimate knowledge and appreciation of Psychobilly, the film makers forget to speak to those that are on the outside looking in.
Documentaries fail when they pose questions or expose the audience to experiences, places, people, or events, and then offer no insight. Lack of explanation creates a vacuum in which the audience can only piece together their conclusions from assumption and personal bias.
For those who are unfamiliar with Psychobilly, Amercian Rumble creates this vacuum from the onset. The imagery and exploits showcased in the film paints a potentially violent, unwelcoming, anti-social, and somewhat perverse picture of a world populated with incoherent, sexually predatory, and confrontational personalities that strive to frighten and intimidate. For as much as this is not the reality, no alternate perspective is given.
Compared to other alternative-music subculture films like Another State of Mind or The Filth and The Fury it pales as a documentary failing to give insight or allow the audience to become intimate with the personalities or the history of the subject matter. As a concert film it is frustrating for its disjointed flow and incomplete coverage of the individual performances. It does stand up as a document of an event, and for as much as it does not successfully attain all it reaches for, it points its cameras down enough avenues to show that Psychobilly is a diverse and vibrant subculture whose entirety would be nearly impossible to capture in a single film.
On a personal note, the framing of American Rumble as a New York event left me, as a New Jersey resident, feeling slighted. The Birch Hill, the venue for American Rumble, is equidistant to New York and Philadelphia, and is a premier club in a vibrant New Jersey Punk and Alternative music scene**. It holds the station once held by the storied Stone Pony as being the place where all musical roads through New Jersey converge, the place where local and national bands on their way up cross paths with bands who have already passed through the peak of their fame.
* Interviewed in
Legends #109, April, 2001.
** Having been a rabid fan of Birch Hill (and having it being the first date of my wife and I), the editor heartily agrees with this paragraph.