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.
Video & Audio
"Rock That Uke" is as retro in look and sound as its subject matter. The picture is a medium-grade black-and-white shot in the old Academy ratio (1.33:1), and for a documentary, it's perfectly passable. (No digital artifacting gets in the way of the transfer.) The soundtrack is a simple Dolby mono, which would seem like a horrible choice in any other music-based documentary, but not here. The mono track is never tinny or problematic, and the music comes through surprisingly well. No subtitles are offered.
Bios are included for all of the artists featured in the film. These artists also shine in full-length performances of their songs, 80 minutes in all; a few tunes not heard in the movie are also included.
Charming and informative, "Rock That Uke" is certainly Recommended to anyone with an interest in the underground music scene.