For most music subcultures - be they Deadheads, EDM Ravers, or Juggalos - there is an annual festival that also serves as a gathering of the tribes. A chance for at least a weekend to be among like-minded souls and enjoy a shared enthusiasm with each other. And for rockabilly cool cats and kittens, there is no bigger event than Viva Las Vegas.
The brainchild of rockabilly enthusiast Tom Ingram is now in its 21st year, and this April over four days will bring 100 bands and 20 DJs to the Orleans Hotel in Sin City. Among this year's lineup is a one-off reunion of the Stray Cats (who led an '80s rockabilly revival), and performances by genre O.G.’s Jerry Lee Lewis and Duane Eddy. Other events include
Chronicling it all will be executive producer/director Louie Comella and director of photography Gracie Henley of the Houston-based Big Brand Films. Their years-in-the-making feature documentary is titled Rockabilly Weekends - 21 Years of Viva Las Vegas.
While local foodies may know Comella for his gelato and pizza shop Gelazzi and the recently-opened Italian American Grocery on White Oak in the Heights, his true passion has always been in and around filmmaking. An actor friend in the industry convinced him to go to the Viva Las Vegas festival in 1999, and he was immediately hooked.
“I’ve always been a fan of classic rock and rockabilly, but I had no idea this sort of thing [existed]. And I could immediately feel the energy in the room,” Comella says during a break in shooting for a commercial outside of Gelazzi. “And I kept going back.”
In 2010, he began filming at the event for a proposed television series that would chronicle contemporary rockabilly culture. He returned for two more years to add to his cache, though the project stalled.
Flash forward to 2017 and the 20th anniversary of Viva Las Vegas. Comella – with Ingram’s blessing – revved up the cameras again with Henley along as well. In addition to capturing all sorts of things at the event and profiling Ingram, the pair also scored interviews with '50s/'60s rockabilly performers like Sonny Burgess, Brenda Lee, Wanda Jackson, and (by comparison) a young kid on the block, the Reverend Horton Heat.
Now with enough footage and the documentary well on its way to completion, they decided to hold off for one more year in order to capture 2018’s historic musical lineup - pending permissions. Plus after all, in Vegas terms, “21” is one helluva lucky number.
Comella first met Henley about three years ago, and they have since worked on “a few hundred” projects together. “She has a great eye for cinema,” he says. And - for this project - a quick finger on the “record” button.
“You really have to be ready to film anything and at any time at Viva,” Henley offers. “Things are happening constantly, and you never know who you will find. We interviewed a woman about her ‘50s fashion, and she turned out to be one of the world’s experts on the [topic]. And she was from Australia!”
Nostalgia for the music, fashion, and – let’s face it – highly sterilized version of the 1950’s first came back around in the mid-‘70s with things like American Graffiti on the screen and “Happy Days” on TV. But to its contemporary adherents, rockabilly culture is more than just a retro fad. It’s a lifestyle.
“The symbolism of the music was about rebelling, and we associate rockabilly culture with that rebel feeling even today,” Comella says. Even that genre now has offshoots of its own like psychobilly,
“This music is never going away, and when you see thousands of people going nuts and then see the numbers of visitors that go to Las Vegas from all over the world for Viva, it’s impressive,” Comella says.
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Henley adds “there’s something special about this music which – dare I say – saved the country from segregation. They may not be able to live near each other, but they could listen to music together. And the rockabilly community is a close one. People aren’t afraid to come and be together when others may see them as ‘weird’…but it’s definitely a parallel universe.”
Editing continues on the documentary here in Houston, and Comella and Henley hope to have a finished film ready by the end of the year. Comella says he already has “high-interest levels” from several outlets to show the film, but demurs on naming names at this point. He also has plans to release an accompanying soundtrack record.
“We want to bring to the world that this culture is out there. And we want these music acts to tell us where they came from and where this music is going,” he sums up. “And we’re telling that story from right here in Houston.”