Forget the videogame — it’s a real-life version of Guitar Hero when Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White get together for the music documentary It Might Get Loud, an exploration of the electric guitar that spans, roughly, three different musical generations, and encompasses all sorts of different modes of expression. Director Davis Guggenheim’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, the film works as a sort of three-for-one biography, with just a handful of glancing, macro-analytical insights scattered and tossed in for good measure.
Guggenheim structures his film in discrete narrative strands, but doesn’t waste time with talking heads trying to frame or debate the importance of his subjects’ bands, or respective places in music history. In fact, even bandmates or other intimates don’t win any screen time; the only interviewees are the three men themselves, which helps give It Might Get Loud a well-groomed intimacy.
Page, of Led Zeppelin and the Yardbirds, has probably the deepest reservoir of stories, and therefore the most fascinating back story, having started out as a session guitarist who laid down licks for commercial jingles on the side. For all the shit The Edge, of U2, takes for his zen-guitarist persona, it’s White — of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and whatever new side project he’s put together this week — who is the most interested and invested in artificial persona. He drafts a miniaturized version of himself for the movie’s biographical segment, and stages scenes where he teaches this younger “him” how to play the blues, and even kick down a piano stool for added effect. He also cops to the arthouse conceit of the White Stripes, and the fact that the costuming was all misdirection and window-dressing, all so that they (or he, really, since bandmate Meg White comes across as doing little more than what Jack tells her) could play earthy blues and folk music without facing a harsh, skeptical vox populi.
As I mentioned previously on the site, the movie is in sum never less than in-the-moment engaging, even if
there’s a lingering feeling that the roundtable
gathering that forms its spine — what Guggenheim called “The Summit,” and less a Charlie Rose-style chat than a meandering exploration of a couple of the gentleman’s big tunes, and adolescent breakthroughs — could perhaps have used a bit more
prodding or structure, to get at the marrow of exactly why and how sometimes even (or even especially) trite musical expressions achieve significant emotional lift-off. I know… it’s like dancing about architecture, this, especially since the movie quietly serves up contradictions (White talks about technology being “a big destroyer of emotion and truth,” even as he mounts a microphone into the carved-out body of a guitar, allowing for greater feedback and distortion) in a fashion that underscores how a lot of music, and indeed maybe art in general, is about learning and knowing the rules, and then consciously breaking or tearing them down.
There are some great song stories along the way, whether it’s Page recounting the drum set-up for “When the Levee Breaks” or the Edge stumbling across an early cassette recording of some “Where the Streets Have No Name” noodling, with Bono calling out time shifts in the background. What most pokes through, though, is the sheer joy attached to creative expression. “There was a thrill in doing, even if we were doing it badly,” says the Edge. Later, White (resembling a ghostly, slightly pudgy Johnny Depp) talks about the aggressive quality of music, and seemingly channels the spirit of a bullied-too-long sensitive soul who’s finally screwed his courage to the sticking place, saying, “It’s our chance to push you down now.” It’s a reminder that music matters so much because it has the capacity to make us feel other than what we perhaps are, and feelings so often can and do trump cold rationality. For the film’s trailer, click here. (Sony Pictures Classics, 97 minutes, PG)