In 2006 a video of a Hawaiian musician playing a ukulele rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” was posted online and launched the career of one of You Tube’s first stars, Jake Shimabukuro. The remarkable thing about this new media sensation was not just that it catapulted the career of a single artist, but that it heralded what seems to a new era of legitimacy for the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments–the ukulele.
Even traditional rock stars like Eddie Vedder are using ukulele in their music now and cite Shimabukuro as the master. The Jake Shimabukuro Documentary premiered at the Castro Theatre as the centerpiece of the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival last week, and the audience packed the house on a rainy night to worship at the feet of Jake Shimabukuro, the world’s first ever ukulele rock god.
The documentary, which is using the place holder name “Jake Shimabukuro Documentary” until it is christened with a formal title, is a bit of a mash note to this ukulele virtuoso. Funded by the Center for Asian American Media and Pacific Islanders in Communications, the movie recounts Shimabukuro’s story, from picking up the ukulele at four years old, to local success in Hawaii and then world-wide ukulele domination following the You Tube posting.
The movie highlights his charitable work, his humility and his love of family, but does not really go beyond this surface, maintaining a polite distance from his personal life or anything that might seems remotely negative.
Although, what could that be? This is a young man optimistic enough from an early age to think that this plinky-plonky instrument that most of the world viewed as a novelty toy would take him places.
During the question and answer session following the documentary, where a visibly moved Shimabukuro struggled to talk through tears, the affinity between the subject of the movie and the filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura was apparent. Perhaps this is why the movie felt a little bit like a promotional piece and a paean to a virtuoso.
Or perhaps like the 20 year old who decides to write an autobiography while the bulk of his life lies ahead, Shimabukuro’s career is only in blossom, and the narrative for the Jake Shimabukuro story is only developing and will be more fully evolved in the years to come.
In the end, none of this mattered to the packed audience at the Castro. Young men genuflected before the ukulele master and asked Shimabukuro for words of inspiration and old ladies toddled up to the microphone to tell him he was wonderful and ask for autographs.
The entire audience swooned when Shimabukuro played, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a traditional Hawaiian melody, his original composition “Blue Roses Falling,” and a masterful rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that brought the audience to their feet (you can see some of this in the videos above and below). Shimabukuro’s brother Bruce joined him on stage for a dueling ukulele version of “Wipe Out,” and the Shimabukuro brothers then accompanied their mother, Carol Shimabukuro as she sang a traditional Hawaiian song.
Look for airings of the Jake Shimabukuro documentary on public television later this year.