Aug 14 2009

It Might Get Loud

This is simultaneously an Early Bird Review and a Film Duel. In partnership with the Edwards University Towne Center 6 in Irvine, one of the few Southern California theaters showing the film, Benn and James watched the first showing of It Might Get Loud, the new documentary about three legendary guitar players: Jack White, Jimmy Page, and The Edge. What follows is in our traditional Film Duel format, in which we both review the film and then comment on each others’ reviews.

It Might Get Loud
Year: 2009
Dir.: David Guggenheim
Starring: Jack White, Jimmy Page, The Edge
Genre: Documentary

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

It Might Get Loud is about music. Of course it is. But it’s about the very soul behind each note that a musician plays, it’s about the way they channel their emotion, the way they channel life, and their world through their fingers and into their guitars or pianos or drums or whatever semblance of natural materials have come together to form an instrument. It Might Get Loud is a documentary that brings together three “legendary” guitarists from three different generations: Jack White (The White Stripes), The Edge (U2), and Jimmy Page. Each of the guitarists takes us on a tour of their musical history, their thoughts on music, instrumentation, and life Then it’s all interweaved with an epic meeting of the three musicians where they talk together. With instruments of course.

If this documentary tries, as most do, to tell a story, it is that of how each of these musicians came to become the artisans they are today. This gives us three different stories that become the threads in the tapestry of a fourth story, that of the evolution of rock and roll itself. If one is to analyze these stories separately, Jack White’s segments shine far above the rest. This is partially because he is the greatest character of the three. Jack White admits even within the film that he has created a sort of persona for himself, one that will distract from the fact that he is a white man trying to get at the earthy emotionality of black men’s music, blues. But this character is simple fascinating to watch. And whether it’s exaggerated or not, you can see that it comes from a place of pure honesty. You can see it in his face when he talks about music, and you can hear it in his stories when he tells them. This is a man who is willing to sacrifice having a bed in his own bedroom so that he can fit that one more piece of musical equipment inside it. His approach to music is also completely unique and it enhances the interest of his segments all the more. I’ll admit I am a big fan of his music, and that certainly had no small effect on my enjoyment of these scenes, but there is something to be said for the way his approach is the greatest tool for story telling of the three musicians. The way he battles with his instruments, the way he forces up emotion from the bottom of his soul, the way he finds the oldest, most story-filled pieces of equipment and pulls a confession from them is so exemplary of what a storyteller looks for. Listening to Jack White play live in the film is often moving, heartbreaking, and inspiring all at once. Additionally, Jack White’s segments are the most creative in terms of filmmaking. Rather than do it in simple documentary manners, he actually has an actor playing an eight year old version of himself, who he teaches his techniques and offers wisdom. There’s less visiting of historical locations for him as a musician, and more set-ups that involve a setting that captures some emotional aspect of his music such as aged houses and barren farmland. Artistically, these segments are where the film reaches its creative peaks.

If you’re looking for the most complete story though, The Edge’s segments seem to be the most thorough. He really takes us through the evolution of his sound and his career, step by step. Going into the film, I had the least appreciation for The Edge’s work, and fully expected to be the least interested in the parts covering his music. While my attachment to his music wasn’t drastically changed during the course of the film, the fact that his approach to music was so different than the other two guitarists’ did keep things fascinating. The Edge is clearly the least skilled and an instrumentalist of the three, but has a way with refining sound that the other two do not. It’s fascinating to watch him trying to bring the vision he has for a song out through the equipment, and how it’s a constant struggle to express his sound accurately. As he visits many of the locations that meant a lot to him in the past, you can see more reverence in his eyes than any of the other three. He seems to have a better understanding of how he got where he is, and how things could’ve turned out differently, and in turn, these things get transmitted to the audience more effectively than some of the other artist’s scenes. Still, The Edge’s music has the least resonance of the three and his story does not seem to have the struggle and conflict that would make it completely worthwhile.

Jimmy Page’s music on the other hand, is simply entrancing. Whenever his fingers touch the strings, you can feel a master at work. This is a man who has complete and unparalleled control of his instrument. Some of the highlights of the film just depict him playing the guitar, and the interest does not drop any for lack of dialogue or vocals accompanying it. He simply is a living legend of music. As far as the narrative goes though, Jimmy Page does not open up in quite the way that the other musicians do. He certainly tells his story from beginning to end, but the filmmaker’s fail to get at his soul’s connection to sound the way they do with Jack White. Jimmy Page remains somewhat of an enigma despite all of his screen time. It becomes quite clear that even he doesn’t understand the source of his power, his “creative spark” as he calls it. And there’s certainly something to that. Perhaps depicting the mystery of artistic creation is this aspect of the documentary’s greatest achievement.

Despite all the heavy footwork that’s put into the speaking segments and recording the incredible, incredible performances of these musicians, there are some unexpected moments here that surprise you with their emotional depth. Specifically, there are two moments, one featuring Jimmy Page and the other Jack White, depicting them just listening to music. Watching Jimmy Page grinning from ear to ear as he listens to rock and roll on an old turntable is magical. Similarly there’s a show-stopping scene of Jack White sharing his favorite song with the world. The music is haunting, and seeing Jack entranced with it is equally inspiring. Within a minute and a half the viewer attains a complete understanding of Jack’s love for blues music, and the way it can express the human condition. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that this film contains many scenes with all three geniuses in one room, and that they play music together. There simply isn’t a way to take your eyes from the screen when you see these minds playing together, following each other’s leads, and taking turns making love to their instruments.

As a documentary, this film is in no way revolutionary. I actually don’t feel that it tells a particularly marvelous narrative. Its editing balances the three stories notably well, and the musical mixing works excellently, but it’s not one of the best stories put to screen. What it does do is capture music, the minds of the musicians, and the connection between their art and the human condition in a way that I haven’t seen put to screen. And it can’t be forgotten how incredible the music is in this movie. If it wasn’t for those other things, this would be worthwhile simply as a display of music and live performance. One could close their eyes and find it to be a completely enjoyable and enlightening collection of songs. If you’re someone without a passion for music, it’s possible that this film could fail to please you in the way it has me, but it’s also possible that it will completely change your mind about music as an art as well. If you’re already passionate about music, as so many are, than there’s really no question about whether you should be seeing this film in the first place. Go.

Benn says:

David Guggenheim’s documentary on guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White goes in a different direction than other rock documentaries. Rather than trace the history and exploits of these three artists, Guggenheim puts them in a guitar-and-amp filled room to discuss the art and philosophy of what it means to be a guitarist.

Some may say that, while certainly recognizable, some of the stars of Guggenheim’s film are not the greatest guitarists out there. Where is Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry or Pete Townshend? Then again, It Might Get Loud isn’t a rundown of rock and roll’s greatest performers, but an in depth discussion of style and interpretation. Why do these musicians play the way they do? What makes them tick? What are they trying to accomplish through their music?

Jack White of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and Dead Weather steals nearly every scene he’s in, as is the most eccentric of the three musicians. Picking up were blues guitarists like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson left off, White discusses his volatile relationship with his guitar, likening his style of playing to a kind of bloody fistfight with his instrument. Following this revelation, there is footage of White bleeding all over his guitar during a furious guitar solo with the Raconteurs, which goes to show that he is not being metaphorical or artsy about it; he’s dead serious.

The Edge (U2) is seemingly the oddest choice for the documentary, as he is not known for aggressive guitar solos, yet his approach to his instrument is vastly different from his co-stars. Described as a “sonic architect”, the Edge uses a multitude of effects pedals to explore the vast, colorful palette of sounds previously thought impossible for a guitar to achieve. Not only is his philosophy and style of guitar playing enchanting, the Edge’s friendly, soft-spoken charisma proves to be suprisingly entertaining as well. The stories he tells about Ireland’s violent past, his experiences in college and his own quest for that perfect, sustaining sound, The Edge proves himself to the most thought provoking and inviting of the three men.

It is difficult to discern what Jimmy Page’s exact specialty is in contrast to the percussive White and techno-philosophical Edge, since he is not only the best guitarist of the group, but one of the greatest guitarists in the history of music; one would expect him to part the seas with a riff. However, Page offers an interesting history of English music in post-World War Two London and tells of his own experiences with the changing tides of popular music, starting out playing in a skiffle group in his teens, to playing in a little of everything as a studio musician, from Kinks singles to bland, predictable muzak. Bored with accompanying others, he joined the Yardbirds, then the iconic Led Zeppelin to explore and break the boundaries of folk, pop, blues, and just about every other genre or style of music.

Again, this documentary is not a history lesson on the rises and falls of these musicians, but functions as a roundtable discussion on what events in their life lead to their growth as musicians and, more importantly, as artists. Whether it’s White’s blue collar background, Edge’s distaste for Seventies pop music or Page’s boredom of the music business, each has a story and philosophy that provides a deeper insight into what makes these guys tick personally and musically.

Though the central location for the documentary takes place in a studio with the three stars discussing their opinions and views on art, Guggenheim follows each individual to their own respective stomping grounds. The Edge gives us a tour of his old university to show us U2’s first, tiny practice room, first stage (little more than a raised concrete platform behind a classroom), and his small, private studio overlooking a beautiful Irish seaside. White sits in his cramped, wood paneled house full of equipment isolated in Tennessean farmland, illustrating his earthy, bare-bones approach to music. Taking us to his home in London, Page stresses the importance of pushing boundaries and technique, yet reveals little of his own process, thus asserting himself as the trio’s signature enigma.

Presenting three different stories and opinions from three very different musicians could prove to be difficult, and even an experienced documentarian could run the risk of turning this into a bloated, unorganized mess. However, Guggenheim carefully stacks each guitarist’s message so that they seamlessly fit in with one another. Furthermore, despite each musician’s different, even conflicting philosophies, they each share a distaste and boredom of what music had become in their own respective timelines and sought out a different way of telling the same old stories in a different fashion.

Putting three rock megastars in one room can prove to be disastrous, which Jack White addresses in the beginning of the film when he predicts a fistfight breaking out between the trio. Whether it’s because of Guggenheim’s direction, the personalities of the three stars, or a little of both, the environment of the discussion table is open and friendly, making it very easy for the audience to get lost in the discussions and jam sessions performed throughout the film. It would have been nice, though, for there to be more interaction between Page, White and the Edge, as a majority of the film follows the three individually, then pops back to the studio for a brief moment of time. Then again, the stars of the film are not, in fact, the musicians, but the music itself.
It Might Get Loud is a journey through the history of music, and offers us a glimpse of its evolution through the eyes of these three guitarists. From Muddy Waters to Link Wray to the Jam, viewers are exposed to the many kinds of styles, routes and personas of blues and rock music. It is difficult to imagine that such an influential, definitive art form also happens to be relatively young, and its exciting to see how rock music has evolved from its blues, folk and jazz predecessors, not to mention how the music, the instruments, the songs, and it’s musicians have changed from 1965 to 2009.

Benn’s rebuttal:

I like how James addressed the sincerity and glee of the three musicians whilst discussing their own affinity and influences in music.  When dealing with a rock musician, let alone three, it would be easy a film like this to slip into a kind of self indulgent, pretentious tone, yet there is something real and touching with White, Edge and Page when they discuss their craft that comes through the film.

I will argue, however, that although White was quite the character, I found the Edge to be the most thorough and deep of the three.  I found his experiences to be quite entrancing, and I think he brought a very warm, inviting presence on screen.

James’ rebuttal:

Benn brings up a good point in the fact that there isn’t as much interaction between the three as I would have preferred.  When it does show them discussing things between each other, it is primarily one telling a story and the other two enraptured by the tale.  I did expect more jamming between the three than actually occurs, and every now and then the jams are a little disappointing.  This is partially because none of the three can really let loose their style and so it becomes a practice in either Jack White and The Edge adhering to Jimmy Page’s mold or Jimmy Page and The Edge following Jack White’s lead.  Interestingly you never see the other two marching behind The Edge.  Nonetheless the final song is breathtaking.

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