While many of us spend the summer jamming to Icona Pop's thoroughly modern electro hotstepper, "I Love It," the folks featured in Los Wild Ones exist in a musical world that has more in common with Ritchie Valens. The film documents the life and times of the small, independent label Wild Records, which was founded by the compact and independent-minded Irishman Reb Kennedy. Kennedy's passion for early rock and roll is evident in the music he releases and in his haircut: buzzed sides, longer up top, slicked back with a generous application of pomade.
Rockabilly music dominates the label's lineup. For those not in the know, rockabilly is a portmanteau made up of the words "rock and roll" and "hillbilly." Guitars drip with reverb and echo while stand-up bass strings are slapped hard and abused. During performances vocalists wail their throats raw. While Wild's musicians may not necessarily look the hillbilly part, they often ape the vocal hiccups and twang of country music. Think Sun Records-era Elvis Presley on his seminal track, "That's All Right."
Wild artists record with Kennedy and engineer/artist Omar Romero in Kennedy's refurbished garage in a suburban southern California neighborhood. The recordings are done on tape in one-day sessions, warts and all, which means you get everything from miscues to outright mistakes to the gurgle of whiskey by the drummer before a song begins. The film follows Kennedy as he seeks to recapture old time rock and roll, which often leads to disputes with the younger Romero, who seems to see Kennedy as a father figure. The artists also urge Kennedy to modernize (but only when he's not around) and make their music available for download on iTunes. Kennedy's inability to cede control of any aspect of Wild is frustrating for the musicians.
The most emotionally resonant point in the film comes when the musicians talk about how well they are treated in Europe, where rockabilly has a much larger following. Thousands of fans flock to three-day festivals where big-finned cars from the '50s, poodle skirts and crimson-lipped pin-up girls are on display. The touring acts make thousands of dollars and everything is free for them including booze, food and beds. When they're there, it's as if the last half of the 20th century never happened. Rock and roll is new again. Then they return home to their day jobs. Luis Arriaga of the bands Lil' Luis and Los Wild Teens sums up the downer that is returning to real life: "Your boss tells you, 'blah, blah, blah' and your life is shit, and you think, I was just autographing boobs." Arriaga goes on to pick through a massive sack of bills, some opened, some not.
Most of Wild's artists are Hispanic. The film doesn't get into why young Hispanics are drawn to rockabilly music and culture, which is a bit disappointing for those of us interested in cultural phenomena. (Is It Really So Strange?, a documentary about Morrissey fandom in Hispanic culture is infinitely fascinating). Most likely, filmmaker Elise Solomon knew that unpacking the "how" and "why" would take some time, and perhaps take away from the emotional center of the film—the family that has grown up around Wild Records.
Successful documentaries often let the audience see how families work, and Los Wild Ones does this well. Because the Wild Records story is a continuing one, there is no great catharsis for viewers. Instead, we get a peek into an alternate universe, a time-warp where the Beatles never happened. We see talented musicians throw away their skills in favor of drink; we see them struggle as single parents; we see them passed out on a sidewalk in broad daylight; we see them persevere and find success, both musically and personally. Through all of this Reb Kennedy is there giving out loans and giving out hugs. He books shows and argues with promoters over the phone. In Kennedy we see an example of how to be passionate and obsessed without being vainglorious. He is a man who believes music can solve all of life's problems and who is willing to spend his entire life trying to prove it.
Los Wild Ones screens at the Top Hat Mon., Aug. 12, at 8 PM. Free.