25 March 2010

Rock 'n Film: "It Might Get Loud"

It Might Get Loud
Directed by Douglas Guggenheim
Sony Pictures Classics, 2009

Before the advent of high-definition television and accompanying pristine digital home sound systems, rock and roll films were better off being seen at your local movie palace. Many would argue that performance videos still exclusively demand a ultra-large cinema screen with Dolby crashing around one's visual and aural senses. For example, U2 3D played to large, rapturous crowds in IMAX theaters around the country in 2008, breaking further new commercial ground. And now studios and neighborhood theaters have upped the ante by investing in the 3D experience now that it has become more common and economical.

But one can make a compelling case that some of the newer rock films are best viewed in more intimate surroundings; Jonathan Demme's Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006) and the American Masters' profile of Joni Mitchell, A Woman of Heart and Mind (2003), come immediately to mind.

Now add to that grouping It Might Get Loud, Douglas Guggenheim's portrait of, ironically, three electric guitar icons: Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. Recently released on DVD, this documentary from 2009 provides a somewhat jagged, but linear progression of the development of this trio of compelling musicians, each from a successive generation of the rock canon.

James Patrick Page is first in line. With flowing white hair and sporting a stylish long gentleman's coat, the Londoner takes on the appearance of royalty, striding through the halls of the Headley Grange Estate that Led Zeppelin used to record some of its most famous songs. Alone with a guitar strapped on like a natural appendage, Page runs through the chord progression of "Ramble On" and describes his playing as a combination of techniques: "From a whisper to the thunder." [Think of all the rock music that flows from the 1970s to the present due to that one phrase.]

Page is attracted to the instrument by accident: a guitar was left behind at the home that he moved into as a child. He really becomes enamoured when the skiffle craze hits England in the 1950s. The young prodigy constantly strums his Stratocaster; he brings it to school and plays it at recess. Appearances on amateur shows lead to commercial work in professional studios at the age of 15. Soon disillusioned with playing rote jingles, Page breaks free and joins other musicians to find his own "voice" on guitar ("pop music was rubbish so I wasn't going to play that"). Most know the rest: noted rock sideman; Yardbirds ace; legendary lead guitarist with Zeppelin.

But the charm of It Might Get Loud lies with small moments captured with each of the three subjects. For Page, it is the invitation for the viewer to enter his special room chock full of vinyl. He picks out the 45 of Link Wray's "Rumble" and puts it on the a turntable. Page is transformed; the song is still a seminal moment in his development as a guitarist. As he grooves to it and pantomimes the chord progression, Page raves about the "profound attitude" of the instrumental hit.

Dave "The Edge" Evans recounts the magic of seeing his first guitar in the window at Stuyvesant Guitars in New York City while on vacation with his family. He still covets the Explorer he bought on that day. Then there is the visit to the Dublin school where The Edge found a bulletin board advert for a guitar player authored by one Larry Mullen Jr. U2 is born with a geek so taken with the instrument that he builds a guitar with his brother from scratch as a teen and starts a lifelong search for elusive sonic landscapes that no one else hears. [The Edge is even sport enough to jump up on the school's loading dock to recount the band's first gig.]

In a parallel to the muzak threat to Page's world, The Edge decries the fatuousness of the self-indulgence of rock in the mid-70s ("we knew what we didn't want to sound like"). Paired with the social and economic upheaval in Ireland, it is natural that the young Dubliners would be attracted to the punk sounds of The Jam, Buzzcocks, The Clash and The Ramones. It was freeing to The Edge: "My limitation as a musician was not a problem because I knew I could do that."

Some of the most interesting sequences in the movie center around The Edge's fiddling with his endless array of sonic toys in a Dublin warehouse. It is here that the music lover learns how much time and dedication it takes to glean a "sound" that is like no other. Say what you will about The Edge's guitar prowess, especially in comparison to Page or White; when you close your eyes and hear his style, it is like no other in rock. And that's saying alot.

We also meet John Gillis, born and raised in an economically depressed Detroit. But our first glimpse of "Jack White" is on a farm in Franklin, Tennessee. Using a piece of wood, a wire, an old Coke bottle and a simple electric pickup, White creates a make-shift guitar and slides a few blues notes for the camera crew. Ironically enough, the guitar isn't his first choice: he is instead drawn to the drums, probably due to predominance of hip-hop and house music in his neighborhood. But when working as a furniture upholsterer, White has his eureka moment when he sees hard-driving drum/guitar group Flat Duo Jets perform.

From there, things tend to get a little murky. It is almost like White has created a Dylanesque persona to meet his own musical - and commercial - goals. The famous Montgomery Ward Kay guitar is obtained at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, "as payment for helping move some stuff." The formation of The White Stripes is choreographed to the nth degree, from the ruse of identifying his wife Meg as his "sister" right down to the red, white and black marketing colors.

But while this act can be a bit off-putting at times, White's self-described immersion in the roots of rock and roll can be very interesting. His rumination on the guts of the blues (and devotion in particular to Son House) rivets the viewer - "A freight train in the minor key, representing antiestablishment, pain and tension: I found that this is where my soul rests too." Guggenheim then shows some live footage of White literally shredding his fingers on his guitar strings, blood smeared on the instrument's shiny body. White clearly is in love with what he does; from his rerigging of a Gretsch to appreciation of all music Americana, he is clearly a logical successor to the musical tree that spawned Page and then The Edge.

The much hyped super summit at the end of the film is almost anti-climatic. Why was a sterile Hollywood set chosen as the centerpiece after nearly 75 minutes of intimate visits with the three principals? Why a ragged performance of "The Weight" as the credits roll? Luckily, two minor moments, both courtesy of Led Zeppelin, leave us fulfilled: The Edge, standing at attention, and Jack White, literally putting down his guitar, both visibly in awe of Jimmy Page while he plays the coda to "Whole Lotta Love; and all three joyously playing "In My Time Of Dying" as a slow blues and then each soloing briefly, highlighting own their unique styles of playing the guitar.

It Might Get Loud proves once again that rock and roll is most affecting when it is simple and primal. And that's why every generation still finds its way back to Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry for true inspiration.

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