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Rock Doc: It Might Get Loud: The Stop Smiling Review

The Stop Smiling Review


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

It Might Get Loud
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Reviewed by Steve Dollar

A nation of suburban dads working through their mid-rock crises through repeat big-screen flat panel viewings of This Is Spinal Tap and VH-1 rockumentaries has necessarily lowered expectations for the fret-wizard power summit occasioned by the new documentary It Might Get Loud. I say “documentary” because it’s a non-fiction work. But the film’s lavish production values, transcontinental location jumping, blockbuster producer (The Dark Knight’s Thomas Tull), and handpicked Oscar-winning director (Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth) actually suggest something more like a presentation.

“Electric guitar is a crime against the state,” David Byrne once warbled. Yet, as the rampant popularity of the video game Guitar Hero shows, all that epic riffage ultimately serves the corporate behemoth. It’s anything but subversive. So it’s downright startling to witness, as the movie opens, the sight of Jack White – guitarist for the White Stripes – hammering together a crude electric diddley-bow on the porch of his farm outside Nashville. White, dressed in the formal attire of a country gentleman circa 1932, takes a hunk of wood, some nails, a little wire, and a cheap electric pickup, and soon is making a high-pitched, screaming racket as a nearby cow gazes indifferently. White looks mighty pleased with himself, and gestures as if to say, “Look! See how easy it is?”

That brilliant bit of hubris is a tip that Loud is not going to be just any old jam session. White, along with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and U2’s The Edge, were picked to represent three different generations of lead guitar awesomeness. Given that none of the men are particularly known for giving extensive interviews (or, in White’s case, known for devilishly declining to give up any straight facts), the mere sight of them talking in front of a camera is more extraordinary than it would seem: The Edge waxing poetic about his first guitar; White in his clapboard country shack, playing Son House, a rapt look of magical, childlike transfiguraton on his face; Page, evoking a wistful astonishment, as he relives the moment in Headley Grange (the manor where Zep recorded IV) when John Bonham laid down the dinosaur-stomp drum tracks for “When the Levee Breaks,” the echoes booming up through the rafters.

Though slickly made, the film nicks through the varnish of celebrity to get these guys fully in touch with their inner music geek (which, honestly, is not that far under the surface). The touching and sometimes self-deprecating confessions and video clips of early performances (a teenage Page in a skiffle band, The Edge playing with U2 in its understandably forgotten glam phase) serve an episodic progression of themes. Wisely, Guggenheim lays off any overbearing narration, typically sketching each guitarist’s peculiar arc up to a key point and then letting the viewer (or his subjects) filll in the rest. As such, the narrative is all about artistic process, not the trappings of fame, underscoring little breakthrough moments and encouraging each musician to reveal some of their secrets. There are plenty of fascinating, show-off moments. The Edge pulls aside the digital curtain to disclose what he’s really playing on guitar when his array of effects pedals are switched off. White illustrates how to write a song from scratch in five minutes and plays honky-tonk blues on a battered upright piano while a young boy (in matching suit, a la Mini Me) sings along, a conceit that’s amusing but somehow out of synch with the rest of the film. (Oh, that Jack!) Page explains the importance of dynamics, playing “Ramble On” in the loud/soft/loud manner later maximized by the Pixies and Nirvana.

Eventually, the cameras circle in for the anticipated guitar jam, hovering around the players as they chat on a cozy set within a massive soundstage. It almost feels like a spoiler to note what songs they play, usually in incomplete versions as each tries to follow the other, or master some nuance. The effect is so disarming, even the most jaded rock critic will get goosebumps, or maybe a tear in his eye. They even get Page to sing.

My only question is: Does Jack White dress like that when there isn’t a camera crew at his house?


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