Saturday, July 31, 2010

It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud is based on a foundation so simple and ingenious that it's incredible that a dozen fan films haven't been made in the same fashion: director Davis Guggenheim, who directed Al Gore's portentous slide show An Inconvenient Truth, gets three guitar heroes in a room, and then just lets them do their thing for an hour and a half. His choices -- Jimmy Page, Jack White and U2's The Edge -- are great picks, but their sheer placement in the same room, each telling his story, instantly makes the mind think of other groupings that never were: what if Stevie Ray Vaughan got to tell Robert Fripp how much he liked the King Crimson's mastermind's work on Bowie's Scary Monsters and "Heroes"? What if Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead sat in a room with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Yes' Steve Howe?

What's intriguing is the obvious fact that even Guggenheim didn't think up this brilliance, at least not at first. In fleeting moments, moments that should have been cut in post-production, It Might Get Loud displays tatters of its original intent, to chart the history of the electric guitar. Clearly, once he got his three stars in a room talking, the film changed to a focus on these three icons and these three alone, and the director attempts to piece together the possibilities of the electric guitar through the personal connection these players take to their unique approaches.

Impressively, Guggenheim gets to the root of each man's style quickly without relying solely on archival footage of songs we know and love: It Might Get Loud opens with Jack White standing at a workbench on a farm, piling assorted objects onto a block of wood. A glass Coca-Cola bottle, a guitar string, a couple of nails. Only when he nails in a rudimentary set of pickups does it become clear that White's fashioned a one-string contraption that crackles when connected to an amp, sounding as dangerous and wobbly as it looks. But White slips on a finger slide and rocks out for a few seconds before unplugging the thing before it catches fire and calmly turns to the camera. "Who says you need to buy a guitar?" he deadpans.

True to form, we meet The Edge processing his guitar through a bank of knobs, buttons and switches that morph every note into echoing walls of sound that create new notes out of the combination of effects. As for Jimmy Page, does he need an introduction? Page has the carriage of a man who knows he's royalty, lazily strolling around his country château occasionally picking up a lute like a poet prince. He doesn't break out the double neck Gibson and start wailing; instead, he lets you in to see the true Page, the one no one appreciated until long after Led Zeppelin became the most over-saturated band on classic radio and fans had to dig deeper so as not to go insane.

Once he gets them into the same room, Guggenheim splits the film between a running conversation/jam session with the guitarists and an oral history of how they came to the guitar, who they looked to for inspiration and how they evolved. We get tours through record collections, listen to early tapes of the guitarists' earliest, simplest recordings and pore over favorite six-strings, and one can easily see that none of these men is an egotistical prima donna. They all care deeply and unequivocally for their profession.

Amusingly, each has a certain aspect to his playing that annoys the others: Guggenheim hilariously segues from The Edge demonstrating his echo and chorus effects to Jack White ranting about the technological crutches players rely on these days as a substitute for ability. Likewise, The Edge speaks of his punk and post-punk influences, speaking admirably of groups like The Jam ending the reign of 15-minute instrumental wanks, meandering jams made popular in part because of Led Zeppelin's (frankly unbearable) showcases on distended live versions of "Dazed and Confused," "Moby Dick" and the like. And though he never says it, you can't help but wonder if Page doesn't reciprocate, viewing those late-'70s upstarts as responsible for killing the good times.

However, the film is most entertaining when the three start chatting and noodling and the similarities between them come to the fore. If The Edge included Led Zeppelin among those bloated dinosaurs he enjoyed watching the Ramones and The Clash slay, he doesn't show it when he and White stare at Page starting the riff to "Whole Lotta Love" as wide-eyed teenagers gawking at their hero. White speaks so reverently and analytically of the Delta bluesmen who influenced him that Page has a look in his eye that he'd quite like to adopt this wonderful young man. When they pick up their guitars and jam, the three find incredible harmonies. White, accustomed to his punk-blues style, and The Edge, inspired by the first wave of punks, nearly leap out of their skins in glee when Page displays a feral grit unheard in the jazz-folk-blues of Zeppelin's key recordings. And who could have ever expected The Edge to groove so deliciously when everyone breaks out a slide and Zeppelin's epic "In My Time of Dying" fills the ears?

Unfortunately, Guggenheim still wanted this to be a more holistic view of the guitar, and he does not commit to the far better film that's contained in these sessions. The backgrounds of each artist offer emotional explanations of what drives them, but the director follows so much of their careers that he starts to include redundancies and trivialities, taking time away from the scenes of the guitarists speaking to each other and the beautiful moments where they communicate in the only way they know how. Fascinating as these guys are, they're even more arresting when put together, when their personal philosophies come out even as they mesh seamlessly with those of the other two. Page views playing as something mystical, an arcane magic passed down into the modern age. The Edge uses his reverb effects to create layers of notes, forcing him to keep track not only of the notes he's playing but the ones that spring forth from space as if his playing attracts music floating around in the ether to filter through his pickups. Then there's White, who keeps dented, bent and tuneless guitars so that he might wrestle them back into something beautiful as if adopting abused animals and nursing them back to health. These attitudes are visible and affecting when brought out in the group, and the individual explanations of these approaches are redundant and take away some of the personal connection that forms not only between the three guitarists but with the audience.

Then again, each and every moment with Jack White is a blessing. He's certainly humbled to be in a room with Jimmy Page, and he realizes quickly that a player like The Edge is not so far removed from his style, but he still brings his eccentricities to the documentary. For whatever reason, White got a child actor to play the 9-year-old version of himself so that he might "teach himself" to play the guitar as if literalizing the entire conceit of the documentary. White and "Little Jack," dressed identically in black suits with blood-red ties, look like a wacky version of Daniel and H.W. Plainview, a madman looking to put an innocent (and sane) face on his passion. White comes off as the Quentin Tarantino of the blues, capable of recalling the most obscure track and every minute detail of the life of the artist who recorded it, then flooding all of those influences into something as plagiaristic as it is utterly original. He speaks of listening to Son House records with the hushed emotion of a man recounting a religious experience, and perhaps it was for this apostle of raw, searing blues.

Still, I would have liked to see a better balance in the styles of the musicians. White may be something of the midway point between Page's study of the blues and The Edge's minimalist punk ethos, but he clearly falls into Page's camp. Were the film the first in a series of oral histories that would track the guitar across all the genres it's touched, I would not focus so intently on this imbalance. As it is, the film feels incomplete. Guggenheim could have included a classical or metal guitarist with no less discipline and love for the instrument. Ooh, what about a jazzbo. Who wouldn't want to see John McLaughlin or Pat Metheny expounding on the astonishing areas they've taken their playing? (If you answered, "Me," you need to take a long, hard look at yourself.) Combined with the padding of individual background, It Might Get Loud doesn't quite reach the heights it continuously hints at each and every scene. When it clicks, however, the film is inspired: I can think of no purer treatise on the equalizing effect rock has on the collective soul than watching Jimmy Page put on Link Wray's pioneering "Rumble" and giddily playing along with an air guitar as if a teenager rocking out to, well, Jimmy Page.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see someone else give this movie some praise. I liked it. I agree that it's best when the three of them are together. At the same time, I liked the diversions into the personal, particularly for Page and The Edge ... seeing where albums were recorded, classrooms where the band first practiced, a ledge where they first performed, that kind of thing. I'm conflicted about White. He's unfailingly interesting, but he almost needs his own film. In addition to the "Little Jack" oddity, he continues to imply -- without correction in the film -- that Meg is his sister, when in fact she isn't. Point is, he's constantly spinning is legend to the point where it's hard to take his word for anything. And once you reach that point, it's almost as if he goes from being unfailingly interesting to not interesting at all. As my contradiction here implies, I found myself looking at him both ways: Falling for the legend in one scene, doubting everything he said in the next, and deciding that in some way the combination of the two made him more interesting -- a puzzle to solve. But since we don't look at Page or Edge that way, perhaps it would have been better to go with some other younger guitarist.