A few years ago director Davis Guggenheim set out to create a documentary about one of the most iconic instruments in music, and the driving force behind the entire rock and roll scene since its inception: the guitar. His way of doing so was to get the perspective of three musicians, each in some way the driving force behind a particular brand of rock music. Jimmy Page, the guitarist from Led Zeppelin; The Edge, the genius behind the unique and experimental sound of worldwide rock sensation U2; and…Jack White from The White Stripes. Guggenheim essentially films a conversation between the three men as they sit with their guitars in the middle of a warehouse, talking about their personal stories, influences, creative visions, and thoughts on the history of rock music. It’s a daring concept to be sure, and one that is inherently fraught with musical controversy: ask any guitarist to name their three heroes in the genre, and it’s doubtful Page, Edge, and White would all be mentioned in the same sentence. The three are masters of their craft, but how many hundreds or thousands of brilliant, influential guitarists (Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Neil Young, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or modern virtuosos like Buckethead, John Petrucci, or even Mark Tremonti) were left off the list? Why these three specifically? The answer, it turns out, doesn’t really matter. This isn’t a movie about the best, or most influential, or most popular, or most innovative, or hardest-shredding guitarists. It’s just a movie about three dudes who are masters of their craft and offer their perspective–take it or leave it.
Beyond just filming a conversation, Guggenheim offers a much richer experience than just watching three dudes wax nostalgic about their geetars. He offers glimpses into the creative processes each musician has gone though to lead them to where they are. From Page’s humble beginnings as a studio musician and then playing backup for the Yardbirds, to the streets of Detroit where White, the youngest of 10 children, spent his days working in an upholstery shop and playing music with his boss in the evenings. Even The Edge, who practically sleeps and bathes with a full set of pedals and FX boards, takes a trip back to the high school where he and his friends practiced music in their teacher’s classroom after the bell rang.
On some levels the movie succeeds quite well, and it’s fascinating to see how each of these men have taken the guitar and made it their own. The most captivating is Page, who having achieved the pinnacle of rock and roll stardom, and been there/done that by any definition of the phrase, is just as enthusiastic as ever about the guitar. Like watching a child utterly captivated by the simple pleasure of a rubber ball or toy car, Page jams away to classic Zeppelin tunes like Ramble On, exuding joy from every pore. Watching him play air guitar as he listens to his early influences like Link Wray’s classic instrumental Rumble is the standalone highlight of the entire documentary, as his infectious affectation for the molasses-thick riffs practically oozes through the screen.
In stark contrast to Page and Edge, Jack White spends much of the film brooding over the sad state of over-produced music today, and strumming out harsh contrivances on old dusty guitars as if trying to make some kind of point about keeping the soul of music pure. It’s rare that he smiles, even when sitting inches away from Page and Edge, and watching him play the piano while encouraging his son (with whom he shares a scarily identical wardrobe of slacks, vest, and dour scowl) to simply bang on a guitar with his foot, as if the nonsensical rubbish were some kind of expression of musical purity, was actually a tad frightening.
Seeing the bombed-out haunts of Edge’s childhood in conflict-ravaged Dublin, the cavernous Headley Grange mansion where Zeppelin recorded IV, and the dirty streets of Detroit where the White family struggled to make ends meet is all very interesting, but the trouble is there’s just not much substance in the movie to go along with the powerful imagery. It Might Get Loud seems like an extended trailer for what would make three very interesting biographies, and by merely touching on the primal elements from which some of the greatest tunes in recent history were born, it feels like so much more could have been explored that time just did not allow for. It Might Get Loud is an interesting curiosity, though it lacks a true punch or even a real message. So the guitar is a cool instrument–whether it’s a basic acoustic setup or a high-tech magical wand at a U2 show. We already knew that. And seeing these three men talk about it, while watching bits of their personal biographies, comes across like the impromptu jam session they find themselves in near the end: curious but more than a little awkward.
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