‘It Might Get Loud’: Real guitar heroes

August 12, 2009

“It Might Get Loud” is a documentary filmmaker’s dream project: Pick an artist whose work you really love, then get them to let you hang out and film them talking about how and why they do what they do.


In the case of director Davis Guggenheim (Oscar winner for “An Inconvenient Truth”), his object of desire was a group of three electric guitarists: Jimmy Page, The Edge of U2 and Jack White of the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather.


Two out of three isn’t bad.


Guggenheim constructs the film like a gunslingers’ shoot-out – a generational confrontation between hot-fingered masters. What it becomes is a kind of guitar summit, with the three of them sitting around in overstuffed chairs on a platform in the middle of an L.A. soundstage, talking about electric guitars and playing them.


Their discussion inevitably leads to demonstrations – Page ripping out the fuzztone thunder of “Whole Lotta Love” or The Edge (real name: David Evans) demonstrating how he gets that distinctive tone to his lead on “In the Name of Love.”


The summit is punctuated by Guggenheim’s real work: getting each of them alone on their own turf, to talk about the early days, the people and music that shaped them, the sounds they still listen to, the dreams they still chase.


Aside from a couple of guitar technicians, who point out the bank of buttons and switches that help process The Edge’s sound, there are really no interviews with anyone else to put these musicians into perspective. Instead, Guggenheim relies on their memories of their early days, illustrated by archival footage: of Page as a young skiffle musician and Yardbird; of The Edge in the early big-hair days of U2; and of White with the White Stripes and the Raconteurs.


But mostly Guggenheim lets these guys speak for themselves or chat with each other. On that score, it’s far from a meeting of equals.


Page is the elder statesman, his longish gray hair swept back, a mysterious smile perpetually on his lips. He’s self-assured in the way an icon should be, though his quiet confidence is less interesting than his ongoing curiosity about his compatriots in the film.


The Edge is hardly voluble, but the guy has the Irish gift of pithiness and wit. Again, like Page, he’s not full of himself – nothing to prove, really. His love of playing is always evident.


And then there’s Jack White, who doesn’t ruin the film for me but comes close. It’s not his music or his playing I object to – I’m unaware of another 21st-century guitarist who has developed as strong a rep as a guitarist as quickly as he has.


His personality is another matter: alternately smug and brash, cocky and aggressive. White is smart enough to know that, in this group, he’s got the most to prove. But he’s not canny enough to lay off the braggadocio and posturing. His nasal, whiny speaking voice and goofy, asymmetrical Prince Valiant hairdo (and those overly precious hipster hats) don’t help.


Fortunately, only a third of “It Might Get Loud” is devoted to White. It’s more than you wish Guggenheim had included – but not so much as to spoil the pleasures of this rocking little treasure of a movie.



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