Big River Man

MovieSteve rating:
Your star rating:

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

5 November

Link Wray dies, 2005

On this day in 2005, one of the legends of rock. Link Wray, born Fred Lincoln Wray Jr in 1929, died. He was most famous for his 1958 instrumental hit Rumble, which added power chords to the blues sound of the overdriven amplifier into the repertoire of rock. If you haven’t heard it, Rumble is an elegant succession of chords played so slowly they’re almost arpeggio, followed by a chiming run down the top notes, repeated and repeated again. It’s simplicity itself. Relying on mood and riff rather than rhythm and tune, it could be argued that Wray invented rock, as distinct from rock’n’roll, the sort of music that would be played by Jeff Beck, Black Sabbath, Iggy and the Stooges, Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols, Van Halen, the Cramps, Nirvana, White Stripes, the Kings of Leon etc. Wray started out in a band called Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands before a bout of tuberculosis necessitated the removal of a lung, which ended his ambitions of singing. He concentrated on the guitar and developed his unusual guitar style – slow and very distorted. After Rumble, Wray and his band mined a seam of rebel, black-leather motorcycle tunes – Rawhide, Jack the Ripper – with short, Native American, pony-tailed and mean Wray making the very antithesis of a frontman, unless it was rock you were looking for. Link Wray was not inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in his lifetime, which goes to show what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame know – it took them until 2009 to induct Dick Dale! In the 1980s Wray moved to Denmark with his new wife Olive, and he lived out his last decades there on the island where Hans Christian Andersen once lived, watching TV, touring when the call came, and burnishing the legend.

Big River Man (2009, dir: John Maringouin)

Big River Man is one of the quirky little films about someone so odd that it kind of stops you in your tracks. Martin Strel is its focus, a big Slovenian who is the “most famous endurance swimmer in the world”. How many can you name? Having already swum the Danube, the Yangtze and the Mississippi, he is picked up by the cameras as he attempts the Amazon, 3,300 miles of it anyway. Now, this is a daunting task in itself but it’s made doubly a challenge by Strel’s size (he’s a lardy kind of guy) and by the fact that he likes a drink. And a horseburger. And he’s 53 years old, which is no one’s idea of peak. He’s a great guy in other words, a roustabout drunk who does everything our risk-averse culture hates. Not that our risk-averse culture even has a position on swimming with snakes, piranhas, parasites and crocodiles. By day Mr Strel is, almost absurdly, a teacher of flamenco guitar. But back to the Amazon, and the swim being masterminded by Martin’s son, who is overseeing a river navigator who freely admits he’s just an amateur. Strel’s doctor, meanwhile, is worried about the swimmer’s blood pressure, the possibility of sunstroke, or just a plain unadorned stroke. There’s not much in the way of facts in John Maringouin’s documentary – how many miles did Strel swim a day? Did he actually swim the entire river? – but then Big River Man is about the man not the river, a man who counters second degree sunburn by drinking more beer, who seems to be wandering towards a Heart of Darkness nexus of psychological and physical exhaustion as he swims down the world’s mightiest waterway. The Link Wray connection? He’s on the amazingly eclectic soundtrack, one of the film’s real standout features, alongside Willie Dixon, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Tom Waits and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Why Watch?

  • It’s produced by Olivia Newton John, who sings the outro song
  • A crazy guy doing a crazy thing
  • Let’s see how a man who drinks two bottles of wine a day – while swimming – gets on
  • It’s all done, so he says, to raise awareness of water pollution

Big River Man – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2013

Leave a Comment