June 9, 2011

It Might Be Great

It Might Get Loud is an easy movie/dvd recommendation for anyone who’s a fan of U2, The White Stripes, or Led Zeppelin.  It’s also an easy recommendation for guitarists.  However, renowned documentarian Davis Guggenheim delivers a film whose lure extends to beyond just the fans of the aforementioned bands or their musical driving forces.  The movie is actually a must-see for anyone who is intrigued by the artistic and creative process.

Guggenheim separately profiles the ascendency of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, U2’s The Edge, and The White Stripes’ Jack White, each arguably the most influential guitarists/musicians of their respective eras and generations.  While there is enough of the expected rock-u-mentary footage tracing the histories of each of the guitarists and their bands to satisfy both fans and newcomers, it is the perspectives of the guitarists themselves that makes It Might Get Loud so compelling. 

The Edge
 For musicians, fans, and casual moviegoers alike, it is fascinating to watch The Edge revisit the very classroom where U2 used to rehearse after school, discuss his early influences and inspirations, and to watch him demonstrate his unique playing technique and his reliance on echo and delay effects to “fill in notes that aren’t there” that create that instantly recognizable U2 sound.  One fast realizes that Bono may get all the media attention, but without The Edge’s indelible sonic fingerprint, U2 is little more than an overbearing spoken-word act featuring an Irish guy who wears designer MC Hammer glasses.  By the end of the movie, one also wonders how a man who is co-author/composer of some of the most memorable music of the last quarter century and who performs in Monsterdomes across the world can be so refreshingly, shockingly, and boringly…unaffected and normal.

Jack White
 The viewer’s reaction to Jack White – probably the least well-known of the three musicians to the mainstream – will most likely be a combination of amusement and some annoyance.  Looking like a cross between Johnny Depp’s less attractive but equally Tim Burton-creepy little brother and the forgotten member of the Addams Family, one is not sure if White is doing old-black-bluesman-from-the-1920s comedic schtick or if he’s just actually an eccentric.  It becomes a bit hard to believe as White discusses how he purposely only plays through old, beaten-up, damaged, and difficult-to-play equipment, and that the key to his creativity and purposely-primitive-sounding-but-pristinely-produced music is somehow the result of coaxing something musical out of this self-imposed technical adversity.  You can’t help but wonder if White is trying too hard to be “eccentric,” and find yourself saying, “Dude, just be normal already!” He redeems himself only when he discusses his upbringing honestly, his salad years as an upholsterer, and his truly encyclopedic knowledge, love, and devotion to the blues.  His unaccompanied performances for the movie are extraordinary.     

Jimmy Page - 1975
 I save Jimmy Page for last because, well…it’s Jimmy Page.  Now looking like a cross between a dapper British aristocrat (which he is) and Beethoven, it’s unbelievable that this soft-spoken, easy-going gentleman is the same rock god who once goose-stepped across the stadiums of the world in satin Nudie suits with embroidered dragons crawling up the legs and vintage German stormtrooper hats, all in a dazed and confused fog of Jack Daniels, cocaine, and Aleister Crowley mysticism.  Personality-wise, Page is a sharp contrast to both The Edge and Jack White.  Whereas one comes off entirely unaffected and the other you’re not sure if it’s schtick or authentic, Page makes no effort to promote or diminish his legendary stature.  He is perfectly comfortable and resigned to the fact that he is Jimmy Page, legendary British guitarist, aristocrat, millionaire, prototypical rock god extraordinaire.  Perhaps it is this aura that Page so naturally exudes that makes one scene, in particular, in this movie so endearing and smile-inducing:  filmed in the vast library of books and records in his house, Page puts on an obscure song from 1958 called “The Rumble” on his turntable and plays air guitar completely unselfconsciously, as he explains his love for the song and its profound influence on him.  It’s an unforgettable, touching, and innocently humanizing moment to see the “Wagner of our day” – as Robert Plant refers to Page – become a wide-eyed, awestruck fan. 

Jimmy Page - 2010
 For fans of Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page, the ultimate “YEAHH!!!” scene comes at the end of the movie in a segment called “The Summit.”  In it, The Edge, White, and Page all sit together in a room and show each other how to play each of their biggest hits.  The Edge shows the chord progressions of a U2 song.  White shows off a White Stripes songs.  As is typical whenever guitarists get in a room and play for each other, there is a mutual admiration and respect but, simultaneously, an unspoken and slightly defiant sense of “check me out”…and then Page shows off “Whole Lotta Love”…    

After listening to The Edge say earlier how U2’s initial motivations were punk influenced and directly in defiance of the bloated mid-‘70s sounds of bands like Zeppelin, The Stones, and Pink Floyd, and after being told what a blues purist Jack White is, it is a moment of absolute irony, humor, and joy to see The Edge of U2 and the Jack White of the White Stripes instantly become gleeful, wide-eyed, guitar-geek schoolboys upon hearing the unmistakable first five notes of one of the greatest riffs in rock coming from the hands and speakers of its composer.

Ultimately, what makes this movie so special is that Guggenheim shows in a most entertaining way that the joy of creativity and music is – to borrow a cliché – universal.  Music is so basic and visceral to the human experience that, stripped away of labeling and packaging and PR and legend, its effect and impact are the same to both its creators as well as its listeners.  In fact, they are one and the same.     

"The Summit"
It Might Be Loud.  It might be great.

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