Three legendary guitarists: Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2), and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs).
It Might Get Loud. But it doesn’t, really. Sure, when the three guitar heroes get in a groove and show what they can do, it gets pretty lively. But these guys aren’t playing a concert, and on an intimate soundstage, who needs ear-splitting volume?
What it gets is interesting, and in short order. This film by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) could have been anything but. Invite three guitarists to come to an empty soundstage and talk about the electric guitar and their own musical experiences, and it could well have turned into the equivalent of a musician’s reunion without the nametags. It could have been risky, too, for as White tells the camera en route to the event, he doesn’t know what to expect. “Maybe we’ll get into a fistfight,” he says, half-serious. But it’s Guggenheim who mixes it up, combining footage of the three musicians talking on that soundstage with archival performance footage and shots of each musician in his own “habitat.” As a result, we don’t just get the stories . . . we get the visuals to back them up. And we don’t just get the music . . . we get a real feel for the music and the relationship each performer has with it. We aren’t just told these guys paid their dues . . . we see early clips and get the tours of sites where it all began, like the high school bulletin board where Edge first saw an announcement that a group was looking for a guitarist, or the expansive entry hall to a country mansion in which “Where the Levee Breaks” was recorded.
The choice of the three guitarists is an interesting one, too, primarily because they’re roughly a decade apart in age. Page (b. 1944) is the oldest, who was playing in The Yardbirds before White (b. 1975) was born and when Edge (b. 1961) was in kindergarten. But the white-haired Page, whom Rolling Stone ranked Number 9 on its list of 100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time, doesn’t school this group–even though he’s a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Maybe that’s because the other two also rate pretty highly on the Stone list, with White named Number 17 and Edge Number 24.
Of Page, Rolling Stone cited his work with microphones and amplification, as well as the “reverse echo” technique he pioneered and “the imperial weight, technical authority, and exotic reach” of his playing. White, meanwhile, was lauded for his “fireball chords and primal, bent-string scream,” the “hottest new thing on six strings” because he celebrates “the oldest tricks in the book: distortion, feedback, plantation blues, the 1960s-Michigan riff terrorism of the Stooges and the MCS.” And David Howell Evans (a.k.a. Edge) made the list because of “the elegant urgency of The Edge’s minimalism,” with his “circular skeletal arpeggios swimming in oceans of reverb” and his use of “few conventional chords for solos.”
Get these guys together, and they’re a little like prizefighters feeling each other out. They know they qualify for the heavyweight division, but they just aren’t sure how they match up with the other two. There’s a respect factor clearly in evidence, both for each other and for the instrument itself. At one point Edge says that everyone who plays electric guitar has to trust his ability to ad lib chords and not just play the same notes he plays every concert, over and over. People can smell it if you’re faking, White says, if you’re doing the same thing over and over. And yet, the guys admit that there are times when the notes don’t come or the fingers can’t keep up. The electric guitar, it turns out, can be a humbling instrument. And having three guitarists from three different generations and backgrounds shows that the instrument has the power to transcend age and culture.
Over the course of this 98-minute documentary, we get each of their stories: how they discovered the guitar, stories about their first guitar, how they got involved in early and subsequent bands, and what they try to do with the guitar–what fascinates them the most. We get to know each of them individually through the interviews, but more importantly through lovely vintage footage that Guggenheim unearthed: like “Ramble On,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” or “Blue Vein.”
Performance clips aren’t very long, but they’re long enough to give a nice feel for the music and not break the flow of the narrative. After all, this isn’t a concert video, it’s a musical journey that explores each man’s relationship with the electric guitar, and as a result, it’s a bit of an anecdotal history of the instrument. We don’t get the facts on when the first electric guitar hit the scene, but when a film like this opens with White at a ramshackle farmhouse building something using a Coke bottle, pieces of wood, a wire, and some electrical equipment, then wails away on it and says, “Who needs to buy a guitar?” you know you’re in for an impressionistic overview rather than a straight documentary.
What stands out, really, are those anecdotal moments that are illustrated with vintage clips: Shots of White with Brian Muldoon in the upholstery shop he apprenticed at, never suspecting it’d also be where he’d serve a musical apprenticeship; clips of a live-music TV show that was an early influence on one of them; or a diagram of a bedroom that had the bed removed to make way for two drum sets, an amplifier, and other musical equipment. There’s plenty of attitude and insight here, too, as when White talks with a younger version of himself and says “You have to pick a fight with [the guitar] and win.” Anger? You bet. It turns out that the guitar players who were the “guys who got picked on in high school” have found in the guitar a way to get even. “This is our turn now to push you down,” one of them says. “Spinal Tap?” one of them recalls. “I loved it. But I didn’t laugh. I wept. It was so close to the truth.”
As raw as some of their guitar-playing can be, there are enough equally raw remarks like this to make “It Might Get Loud” an enjoyable documentary for rock ‘n’ roll fans in general, and for guitar players who’ll get a whole other level out of this.
I’m not going to bother commenting on the vintage clips, except to say that there are a ton of them and they vary in quality, as you might expect. But the newly filmed material in color also tends to vary, surprisingly. In some close-ups, for example, you see the kind of detail on hair and face that we’re accustomed to seeing now on Blu-ray, while other times it’s surprisingly less detailed. There’s a layer of grain that matches the raw, gritty nature of the film, but I wouldn’t call this a showpiece 1080p disc by any means. Colors are good, though, and black levels are strong. It’s just that some scenes really show a breakdown on the edges of images and the quality varies significantly on close-ups.”It Might Get Loud” is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a very competent English or Portuguese DTS-HD MA 5.1, with an additional audio option in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English, English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic. It’s not as impressive a soundtrack as some of the Blu-ray concert videos I’ve reviewed, partly because the sound mostly emanates from the front center speakers and isn’t driven into the middle of the room until the volume is cranked up a bit and the guitarists become a little more animated. So this is one disc that’s helped by playing it loud. When you do, the notes sound just a little crisper and the timbre just a little richer. Turn down the volume and everything feels a little limper and more localized.
There isn’t a lot here, but what’s here is pretty decent. Fans of Internet interactive features may appreciate movieIQ, which allows you to create a playlist of songs from the film. For those who could care less about interconnectivity and are just into the film, there’s an average commentary track from Guggenheim and his two producers, Lesley Chilcott and Thomas Tull, in which they talk about the project, location filming, and editing decisions. There are anecdotes, too, about the guitarists, and that makes it more worth a listen than the technical stuff. Aside from trailers and 11 deleted scenes that run 26 minutes (some of them actually touch cuts to have made, you can tell), the only other bonus feature is a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival in which Guggenheim and his producers are joined by the three guitarists. That 38-minute feature was my favorite, because it shows another side of the musicians.
One thing is clear from this documentary: there’s no separating a guitarist from his guitar, and no separating the music from a guitarist’s life. It’s all connected. And in this non-intrusive, non-didactic film, Davis Guggenheim manages to let three passionate musicians tell their own stories in convoluted but effective fashion. What a great structural concept for a music documentary!