ABOUT ROCK THAT UKE

I asked William Preston (just call me "Bill") Robertson to tell me about a documentary he is working on called Rock That Uke. He was kind enough to write the following:

"Rock That Uke" is a bit on the unconventional side. It's a feature documentary about the rise in recent years of mainland post-punk era bands that play rock music on electrified ukuleles.

As an amateur ukulele player myself (since 1980) I'm fascinated by the notion of performing music that defies the stereotypes of the instrument--music, for example, that is loud and big, or music that is aggressive or dark, or even music that is experimental. I'm intrigued by the artistic statement that's being made through such a performance.

In order for people to fully understand this recent wave of uke performers in context, we delve into the origins and history of the instrument, some of its notable players (Cliff Edwards, Roy Smeck, Arthur Godfrey, Tiny Tim) and examine the current "mainstream" uke scene. We talk to a wide variety of ukulele players of all ages and music tastes. Our point is to show that, though a lot of these "Third Wave" uke performers play punk-influenced rock music, their attitudes toward the ukulele--their relationships with the instrument, as it were--though shaped by their own era, are not all that different from the attitudes of more traditionalist performers. We hope to reveal a "ukulele personality type." Ours is a very philosophical documentary.

The title comes from a 45 rpm instrumental record from the 60s called "Rock That Uke" by someone named "Little Bob and His Electric Ukulele," about whom I've not been able to uncover any background info. We're a budget production shooting on mini-DV and so have had to restrict our project to just the US mainland, but over the course of the past year, we've managed to travel to a number of states, interviewing people on both coasts, such as Jim Beloff, the good folks at the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum, Ian Whitcomb, and Janet Klein, as well as various rock ukuleleists such as Ukefink, Pineapple Princess, Uke Til U Puke, the Ukulele Freedom Front, and Songs From a Random House.

As far as distribution goes, we have none at the moment, because the project isn't finished and we're doing this out of pocket. And we can't say exactly when we will be finished, because we're just now entering the gauntlet of post-production that is the last and biggest hurdle of any production like this--due to its expense. We'll certainly be done in within the year. The question just remains how technically polished we can afford to make our project. And that, of course, determines its success at the festivals, where distribution is to be found.

vWe are just now starting to pursue outside funding sources such as grants and corporate donations. Unfortunately we wasted a good year pursuing our first fundraising plan of looking for elderly millionaires crossing busy streets whom we could save from oncoming cars, thereby becoming through their generous, though perhaps slightly addled, gratitude the primary inheritors of their fortunes. Interestingly, the problem wasn't really finding a millionaire in such a situation. It was my knees. I'm 44 and just can't sprint like I used to--a frustration that was enormous. I can't tell you how many run-over millionaires we left sprawled on the asphalt in their sullied tuxedos and flattened top hats with this ill-conceived plan. In retrospect, Sean, my co-director, who is considerably younger than I, should have done the running. With each film, one learns from the mistakes made.

But I digress.

As for backgrounds, I'm a writer/filmmaker. I've written film pieces for American Film, Playboy, Details, and the London Guardian. I authored an eccentric making-of book on the Coen brothers called "The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film," which at the moment, seems to be the definitive work on them, judging from how many other authors have lifted from it, sometimes with attribution, sometimes not. I also co-wrote the screenplay of a thriller/black comedy called "Johnny Skidmarks," which starred Peter Gallagher, Frances McDormand and John Lithgow and still gets shown on HBO and Cinemax. And most recently, I wrote and directed my own short film called "Weeping Shriner," which I've been taking to festivals.

Sean Anderson, my co-director, is the true documentarian of our project. He worked for a while as a reporter in Washington, D.C., before entering the prestigious Stanford University documentary film program, where he made a number of short documentary films and earned his MA. When Sean and I first met, he was trying to get funding for a documentary about a 19th-Century governor of Kentucky who was assassinated. Sean told me about the assassinated governor. told him my thoughts on the ukulele. And we realized that the commonality of our interests made for a perfect filmmaking team.