It Might Get Loud is a documentary about a musical instrument: the electric guitar. It's a film about how electric guitars are made, how they are used to make sound, and how their users interpret them philosophically. But really it's a film about electric guitarists—those artists who paint jagged, reverb-laden sonic landscapes with their 6-string brushes, pedals and amps. It's a film about how we use tools like guitars to make beautiful and unexpected things like music, and how sometimes that music brings us together as a culture and launches us in the direction of the transcendent.
Directed by Davis Guggenheim (who won an Academy Award in 2006 for An Inconvenient Truth), It Might Get Loud follows a trio of iconic electric guitarists who, though probably not the best three guitarists in the world, are certainly three worthy ambassadors for the craft: Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2), and Jack White (The White Stripes and The Raconteurs). The film weaves a lyrical, artsy web of vignette, history, interview, and archival footage as we explore the meaning and beauty of the electric guitar through the lives of three of its most prolific practitioners.
The three men are also brought together in the film to meet for a discussion and jam session, segments of which are sprinkled at random moments throughout the documentary. Ironically, these scenes ring the most false of anything in the film. Set in some Hollywood soundstage with lights and cameras honed in on a set of couches where Page, Edge, and White trade stories and pluck away at an awkward acoustic rendition of "The Weight" (I pulled in to Nazareth, I was feelin' half past dead), this cosmic explosion of rockstar greatness feels disappointingly forced and phony. What was doubtless envisioned as some sort of epic guitar-summit-for-the-ages mostly comes across as a strange attempt to force camaraderie upon three very different people in efforts to give the film a binding glue. And in a film about artistry and organic experimentation, something as micromanaged as this "meeting of greats" is noticeably out of place.
Thankfully, most of the film focuses on each of its three stars individually, keenly observing their contrasting personalities, aesthetics and approaches to the electric guitar.
Exhibit A is The Edge. Born David Howell Evans, The Edge plays the part of the spiritual rocker. We see him doing yoga, playing his guitar (with amp) on a remote beach on the Irish Sea, and making philosophical remarks about how forests are a metaphor for guitar playing. Somewhere between Thoreau and Gandhi, The Edge uses his guitar in a distinctly otherworldly manner, meticulously employing the technologies and techniques at his disposal (effects modules, pedals, delay, reverb) to push sound to its outer limits. His glittering, patented sound crystallizes best in songs like "Where the Streets Have No Name," which we are privileged to hear both in stadium concert form and when The Edge plays a four-track recording of the early demos of his iconic introductory guitar riff. Where other rock star guitarists might get caught up in the "scene" (groupies, drugs, bad fashion), the sleek, refined Edge comes across as a minimalist zenmaster, an all-business shaman who wants to get in the sound, exploring its contours and possibilities with scientific precision.
In stark contrast to The Edge (but no less fascinating) is Jack White, a Detroit-bred relative youngster whose explosive reinvention of garage rock (via Delta blues) catapulted him to fame alongside bandmate/ex-wife Meg White, who collectively make up The White Stripes. White is a hipster to the core, obsessed with all things old, vintage, and difficult, and prone to inventing obstacles and challenges for himself just because things shouldn't be so easy in these here modern times. Where The Edge was about the sound and musicality of creation, Jack White is more taken with the materiality and lore of rock music. He loves handcrafted custom guitars, the gimmicky peppermint-painted aesthetic of his band (he and Meg only wear red, white or black), and the finger-bleeding "you have to pick a fight with the guitar" intensity of being a hard rocker. Always the contrarian, White also takes pleasure in confusing the press, Bob Dylan style. He's managed to keep the false rumor alive, for example, that Meg White is actually his big sister—something he claims in the film. He is a great guitar talent, to be sure, but for Jack White the accoutrements of rock sometime seems more important than the actual music.
Finally we have Jimmy Page, the film's eldest and perhaps most storied guitarist. But he's also the hardest character to read. On one hand, he's a well-bred British gentleman who taught himself guitar at 12 (in the folksy "skiffle" style), went to art school, and became a career "artist" with the guitar as his canvas. On the other hand, he's the consummate rock god who, in bands like the Yardbirds and most famously Led Zeppelin, helped define not only the modern hard-rock sound, but also the amped-up, big hair, over-the-top rockstar image in the style of Spinal Tap. His scenes in the film are sometimes great (as in an impromptu air guitar performance of Link Wray's "Rumble"), but sometimes they're a bit boring, which is a shame given that Page is a legitimate grandfather of the electric guitar. Aside from the fact that he is THE Jimmy Page and is inarguably awesome, Page's character in the film lacks a strong binding thread that the other two men have. The pieces just don't really come together in a coherent way.
And this is one of the film's biggest overall negatives: disorganization. Though it's perhaps appropriately messy given the subject matter, the film's haphazard editing sometimes becomes grating. We jump around constantly between the three guitarists, and the overall structure is discombobulating at best and maddeningly pretentious at worse.
But when this film is good, it's really good. The concert footage is great and the sound is excellent, especially in the U2 scenes. The photography throughout is impressive and stylish. One of the strongest aspects of the film is its treatment of origins/history. We follow The Edge to the school where he first joined forces with Bono and the band as teenagers on the hard streets of 1970s Dublin. We hear about Jack White's teenage job as an upholsterer's apprentice in Detroit, who he also teamed up with in band The Muldoons. We glimpse archival footage of a conservative-looking 13-year-old "James" Page in skiffle quartet on a BBC talent program in 1957. We learn a bit about what led these men to their intimate relationship with the guitar, and the film could have used more of this back-story.
At the end of the day, It Might Get Loud is a film with compelling moments, some great music, and a lot of interesting-if-disjointed insights for rock historians and fans alike. But it's not a film with an altogether recognizable "point." It won't change your life, but it might inspire you to pick up a guitar, get an amp, and go find a garage to get loud in.Discussion starters
- Jack White says in the film that every guitarist is ultimately "just trying to connect with another human being." What do you think he means by this?
- How have your own experiences with music—either as a listener or as a performer—"connected" you with someone (or Someone) else?
- Which of the three guitarists did you most resonate with. Why? Least? Why?
- Are there any lessons from this film about the purpose or benefits of art and music?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
It Might Get Loud is rated PG for mild thematic elements, brief language and smoking. The film is surprisingly appropriate for all ages. There is one s-word, however, which is a bit unnecessary and elicits laughter from the audience. Other than that, it's a clean film with an interesting subject matter and the potential to inspire audiences to pursue music or other artistic endeavors.
Photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.