Charming and informative!
To some, it's a musical punchline. To others, it's the ultimate symbol of cool. The ukulele, that tiny instrument with the smaller sound, is the symbol of an entire underground, a weapon of pride for loners and geeks, the arty and the kitschy, punk rockers and retro girls.
The ukulele subculture is the subject of Sean Anderson and William Preston Robertson's 2003 documentary Rock That Uke
, which finds the instrument acting as a defining object in the lives of its interviewees. Here are musicians that carry the ukulele as a means of standing out, of refusing not to fit in.
There are some, like the performance artist who's interviewed while wearing a cow suit (he also wears the costume on stage), who view the uke as a symbol of the intentionally geeky. To them, the instrument is a piece in their big, strange comedy puzzle. Others take the ukulele more seriously yet still find it at the core of what are essentially novelty acts: the guy who struts on stage in a straw hat and grass skirt, for instance.
Others, like Janet Klein (whom DVD fans may recognize as "the Ukulele Girl" from the special edition disc of the Steve Martin comedy "The Jerk"), celebrate its nostalgic vibe. The uke was once a symbol of romantic music; you couldn't serenade your lady without one. Klein is at the front of a cottage industry of recordings and performances that aim to emulate forgotten styles and ribald parlor tunes filled with double entendres that conflict with their apparent old fashioned values.
Others still enjoy the sheer musicality of the ukulele. One interviewee describes the sound a uke makes: "There's no bottom to it. Chords can be very ambiguous." Indeed, the ukulele can make a happy song feel melancholy, or a sad song feel gleeful. Some push the instrument to its limits, finding ways to plug in this acoustic thing, to see what other odd sounds can be milked from it.
It's a very easy instrument to learn, we are told, and it's also relatively cheap to buy, two facts that make it a favorite in some punk rock circles; its existence as an "anti-instrument," seen by others as merely a children's toy, adds to the rebellious appeal. Carmaig de Forest is a singer-songwriter whose tunes have a raw, vulgar punk sensibility, even when they're plucked out on his gentle ukulele. Other groups, with names like like Uke Til U Puke, Ukefink, and Pineapple Princess, plug in and kick out the jams, cranking their ukuleles to the breaking point.
We meet all of these people and more (let's not forget the founder of something called "Ukulele Consciousness," a group which exists in the fog between fan club and organized religion), and it would be very easy for Anderson and Robertson to turn this into a mockery festival, a step the duo thankfully never takes. The filmmakers treat their interviewees - even the weirdest, cow suit-wearing ones - with admiration and respect, and some of them are allowed to share deeply personal stories that truly move us. It's a nice change of pace from the dozens of documentaries that come to laugh at, not with, its quirky subjects. Here, the movie admits that some of these folks are strange indeed, but for the most part, they're just cool folks making cool music.
And music is central to Rock That Uke
, which sets aside plenty of time for the viewer to enjoy the widely varied ways in which the ukulele can, well, rock out. Even when the performances don't fit your musical tastes, you'll still be captivated by their sheer gusto and bold inventiveness.
Charming and informative, Rock That Uke
is certainly recommended to anyone with an interest in the underground music scene.
--David Cornelius, DVD TalkA documentary that doesn't have me placing a shotgun to my head !Rock That Uke
is all about those self-professed losers who still carry the ukulele high and proud in the air and use the bastard, freak son of the musical world as their primary means of musical expression: they play punk rock, distorted art rock, dirty, innuendo-filled pervert rock. Some keep it classical, playing the stuff we come to think of when we, if we, think about ukuleles at all. Others mic the thing and run it through a ridiculous amount of effects pedals to make the kind of wall of sound music that Phil Spector would shoot you over. Others keep it simple with the uke, but bring some lyrical power that is both disturbing and catchy, and still others just seem to find the general aesthetic of it all very pleasing.
I wouldn't classify this documentary as remotely objective; this is pro-uke propaganda at its finest, and you're either going to dig what you're hearing or you're going to tune out. On that token, however, at a slim 62 minutes, the documentary finds itself proportional in length as the uke is in size, and therefore easy to handle regardless of how you feel about uke-rock. You do learn a bit about the history of the uke, but that's more to make a case for how punk rock the thing is as opposed to actually educating you (again, this is pro-uke, sexy-that-Konablaster-up). The documentary also does a good job in allowing us to get to know the many "unique" personalities, which is the real find on this DVD: the artists themselves.
And if you do dig the music, and want to hear more of it, or see more of the performers in the film, then the DVD is more than ready, boasting over 80 minutes of additional performance footage (what does it mean when the extra performance footage is longer than the doc itself).
This is light-hearted fare across the board. If there was a category for documentaries that are just fun, enjoyable watches, then Rock That Uke
is right there, and thank God for that. As much as I appreciate an amazing, deeply resonant political or sociological documentary, I see far too many that leave me convinced that the world is going to melt, get nuked or we're all going to genocide each other into oblivion. It's nice to watch a documentary that doesn't have me placing a shotgun to my head because I'm afraid there's no better options. Now I might just pick up my girlfriend's ukulele instead.
All told, this is another world that's being presented to us, and it isn't one many are familiar with (I mean, I worked on a film with Ian Whitcomb, went to one of his shows and even I forgot that the man was a ukulele god until he showed up in the doc). As such, it will broaden your musical horizons, whether you like the new view or not, and that's something to appreciate as well.
--Mark Bell, Film ThreatSubtly hysterical!
Sooner or later, everything gets its time in the sun. Here, in the ongoing progression of creative ways to out-punk the post-punks ad infinitum, the plunky, bitty ukulele takes its turn. Rock That Uke
documents a number of musicians who've taken up the pygmy instrument as a primary voice in their compositions. The film is often funny, as a goofy cast of characters attempt to impress upon the viewer how and why the ukulele has made such an impression on them. For instance, Casey Korder (aka The Rumble Pups) earnestly explains, while dressed in a full cow suit, that a) he used to do a lot of drugs and b) it's possible that ukuleles were a gift to earth from aliens.
Some of the musicians featured are fascinating, like Carmaig de Forest, a stuttery punk with a truly unique tone, and Oliver Brown, whose open-mouthed geek songs are hilarious and dead earnest. Others are godawful, like Pineapple Princess, a female, electric ukulele duo that sucks almost as hard as it tries. One of the best quotes in the film is a comment made by one of their uke colleagues: "I respect them for not having improved for so long."
A dwarfish, shrill cousin to the conventional rock guitar, the ukulele is a perfectly logical successor in the chain of punk ethos, subverting the brassy, arrogant phallus, making irritating sounds, and so forth. Rock That Uke
introduces us to a man who pushes the envelope with the concept of a uke player's mentality by creating a quasi religion called "Ukulele Consciousness." (The guy in the cow suit is a member.)Rock That Uke
manages to be subtly hysterical, in the tender, hands-off way that makes documentaries so precious. It serves its subject well, introducing some interesting uses for the ukulele, making it seem cooler, inspiring, and versatile. It's also self-conscious and funny, given that it's impossible to pick up the thing with an entirely straight face--and, naturally, that is its most embraceable quality.
--Marjorie Skinner, Portland Mercury