Somewhere out on a farm in the middle of Tennessee stands Jack White
, dressed as Jack White and with familiar Jack White stage manner, standing at a table with various (and somewhat random) items: a wood block, a glass bottle, a wire, a nail and a hammer. What does this have to do with guitar playing? Give him two minutes. He assembles the parts together to make a diddley bow*-- when was the last time you saw one of these-- and then punches some wildly astonishing wails out of it, before finally turning to the camera and asking, "Who says you need to buy a guitar?"
If this is the way director Davis Guggenheim wants to starts a documentary, consider me invested. "It Might Get Loud
" is the tale of three well known (and arguably legendary) guitarists in White, Jimmy Page
of Led Zeppelin
and The Edge of U2
. Three completely different guitarists, three completely different personalities but three individuals who share the same love for an instrument that's fueled rock and blues for over half a century.
The setup is that Guggenheim follows each guitarist upon their arrival to Los Angeles for a potentially groundbreaking meeting of the musical minds, gauging their expectation in anticipation of the meeting. This is the first time you get a litmus of their characters: Page is the elder statesman, a certified Rock God and understands that few guitarists who are still alive have ever risen to his apex of both stardom and technical proficiency. He's quite casual. The Edge is more introspective and earnest, as this is the U2 way. White is all about bravado and wanting to prove his place. He's like Prince in "Purple Rain" going up against The Time. "We're probably going to fight," he quips at one point. From here, the documentary divides itself into three separate life stories that intertwine at various random (if not entirely cohesive) points. We get to meet The Edge's lifelong guitar tech, Dallas Schoo, and watch the two of them run through guitars and effects for different songs. It is revealed that The Edge's setup is so complex and so precise that Dallas is quite possibly the only human on Earth who could possibly assist him. Jimmy Page grew up as the best musician on his block and spent much of his youth as a session worker before joining up to form one of the greatest groups ever. Jack White grew up in black Detroit the youngest of ten children, worked in an upholstery shop with a friend as a teenager and the two of them would play music after hours as (fittingly) The Upholsters. He also almost went to Seminary school to become a priest.
It is when these guitarists tell their individual stories that the film is at its best. Jimmy Page is more eloquent and poetic in speech than you could ever imagine. We visit the cottage house where John Bonham
discovered that playing his drums in the foyer made the sound bigger, more powerful. We visit his home where he has library walls of vinyl, cassettes and CDs, where he pulls out some of the tunes that influenced him as a child. When he plays his Les Paul
guitar, he's like a old man dancing romantically with his wife whom he's still madly in love with after fifty years. The Edge is modest and polite and tells his story the way any normal person would. He takes us to Mount Temple School in Dublin where he first met Bono
, Adam Clayton
and Larry Mullin, and takes us to the music room where their teacher was kind enough to let them clear out space and play after school let out each day. He admits that none of them knew how to play their instruments, how they essentially learned to play together. He shows us the bulletin board where little Larry posted an ad looking to form a band. "If I hadn't joined U2," he says, well aware of where fate has landed him, "I would've just been in some other band." The problem with The Edge is that his band came up in an era when the documentary was so heavily utilized for certain bands that there isn't a whole lot he can tell a U2 fan that they won't already know, so the fact that he lets us into this very specific part of his life (and Guggenheim subsequently cuts to some very "bad" footage of U2 trying to look like rock stars on stage) makes this segment worth the while.
Image © Sony Pictures Classics
It's White who provides the most intriguing moments in the film. He lets Guggenheim follow him around with a 9 year old version of himself, and he teaches Little Jack essentially how to be star. "This is what you do when you want girls to pay attention," he says as he's playing the piano, and then kicks the chair out from under him like a mad Little Richard. To the White Stripes' tune "Hello Operator", he describes how he started out playing drums as a kid, set them up in his room, got a second set and had to pull out his bed because he ran out of room. He still plays his first Airlines guitar from Montgomery Ward on recordings and onstage because it works, never mind that it's essentially a plastic toy guitar, and he still records material that ends up on his albums using a single reel-to-reel tape recorder. Never leaves the house without an eccentrically fabulous wardrobe. The entire time he speaks with an "I don't give a damn" manner and is very take it-or-leave it. Jack White is so fascinating in fact, that Guggenheim should go to the cutting room floor and reissue a separate documentary devoted entirely to him.
All of this of course leads to the climactic meeting of the three in a Los Angeles warehouse where they will sit down, discuss where they came from musically and-yes!-plug in and get loud together. Unfortunately this is where the film breaks down. The law of three states that two will always gravitate toward one another while the third will be left out, and this is somewhat the case here. Since Page is a rock guitarist who makes extensive use of the blues scale and White is essentially a blues player who makes extensive use of rock music, the two players have more fundamentally in common than they might with The Edge, who seems to hang back for the most part and let them have at it. In particular, The Edge has made a career out of creating effects that make him sound like two simultaneous players, and he's so technologically plugged in that he's almost a fish out of water playing stripped down, dirty riffs with a couple of ol' schoolers. Jack White on the other hand plays as if he wants Page to let him in his band, and it's satisfying to see the look of admiration on Page's face at the effort. It is all intriguing to watch, but it comes nowhere near the level of watching the three of them (and especially White) off on their own, lamenting on their own personal genesis.
"It Might Get Loud" is an interesting look into the world of three of the greats, will appeal to musicians and connoisseurs of music in general, but as a film it would have been served better as three separate documentaries.
Story by Simbarashe
Starpulse contributing writer
*A 'diddly bow' is a homemade string instrument with African origins.