It Might Get Loud
Directed By Davis Guggenheim Sony Pictures Classics [Three stars]DVDs, Reviews March 10, 2010
How would you best describe what the electric guitar has come to mean to music today? You could delve into the history of the instrument, break it down into its technicalities, explore the social and political constructs that required music to get louder. Or alternatively you could do what director Davis Guggenheim does so successfully in this film: Pick up three guitar greats from different generations, let them talk about their own music, bring them together to share their talent and let the question answer itself.
Guggenheim picks as his mediums three guitarists with entirely disparate styles and backgrounds – Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, U2’s The Edge and The White Stripes Jack White – but with one thing in common: their shared love of the electric guitar. The meeting of the these guitar heroes in a jam session or “summit” is the intended highlight of this documentary but it’s in the interviews, archival footage and the individual musicians that the real stories lie.
Take, for instance, the recalcitrant and deliberately mysterious White. In his opening clip, Guggenheim films the White Stripes guitarist hard at work in a pasture, scarecrow-like among the grazing cows. White strings together a piece of wood, some wire, a Coke bottle and an electric pickup to form a rudimentary single-string guitar. As he plays the caterwauling instrument his philosophy is explained: music should be simple and honest to the core. But even as he stresses honesty, he maintains a carefully guarded image throughout the film, playing up his eccentricities and mystique and you’re presented with the picture of a man riven by contradictions. He uses a unique stylistic device to tell his story: he has a little boy play young Jack White and proceeds to teach him about the blues, playing him the records he grew up on in rural Detroit and explaining his worshipful connection to blues maestro Son House.
The Edge traces his love-affair with the guitar to the time he learned to build one with his brother. Standing outside his high-school where he first replied to a notice put up by Harry Mullen Jr, he takes us through his childhood and the influence of the early Dublin punk scene on his music. A self-confessed gear-head, The Edge’s warehouse is every guitarist’s dream – packed to the rafters with high-end amps and effects units. In one clip, he demonstrates how he gets his signature sound on ‘Get On Your Boots’ where he strips the riffs of their effects to unveil a plain, simple chord progression underneath – it’s the perfect practical demonstration of how bands mould technology to give them that extra edge. From the three, The Edge comes across as the most thoughtful and earnest musician and this provides a fantastic insight into the guitarist who usually lives in the shadow the larger-than-life Bono.
Page meanwhile plays the cheerful aging rockstar, reminiscing about his days as rock’s bad boy. Starting out in a skiffle band in the Sixties, his dissatisfaction with the scene saw him drop out and attend art school. After an unsatisfactory stint as a sessions musician, Page joined the Yardbirds when Eric Clapton quit the band and eventually went on form Led Zeppelin. Most of Page’s footage was shot at Headly Grange, the stately England manor where most of Led Zeppelin IV was recorded.
The awkwardness begins when the three guitarists meet at the summit to talk shop and trade licks. Despite their love for the instrument, it’s clear that the musicians have little in common and the conversation seems laboured and stilted. Each of the guitar players demonstrates one favourite riff but it’s when Page launches into his signature riff for ‘Whole Lotta Love’ that the other two really sit up to take notice, like a pair of star-struck teenagers. The summit concludes with the trip jamming acoustically on the Band’s ‘The Weight,’ a sort of neutral meeting ground that all three seem comfortable with. It never really gets loud, partly due to Guggenheim’s reluctance to push in subjects in any direction, but guitar players will love the film for what it is – a free-form love letter to the instrument that’s given shape, form and structure to music today.