These days, any slacker with the scratch for a video game can effortlessly morph into a Guitar Hero or even stand in for George Harrison on a Beatles classic. So there’s something exquisitely right about the timing of the fascinating new documentary from Davis (An Inconvenient Truth) Guggenheim. Where his earlier film offered a riveting lesson on the science of climate change, his latest expounds on the musical theories and aesthetic philosophies of three indisputable rock gods.
It Might Get Loud chronicles an inspired January 2008 L.A. summit among three generations of artists: Jimmy Page (age 65), The Edge (48) and Jack White (34). The ostensible purpose of the get-together (like that of the film itself, the brainchild of Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull) was “to discuss the electric guitar.” Which the three do get around to doing, to a degree. At the same time, that’s sort of akin to calling An Inconvenient Truth a movie in which people talk about the weather.
The film offers a glimpse into processes that produce greatness: three utterly different sorts of guitar greatness for three utterly different great guitarists. White’s the blues purist whippersnapper who despises technology. At his Tennessee farmhouse, he hammers together a contraption from a chunk of wood, a wire, two or three nails and a Coke bottle and makes it sound like an electric guitar. It looks like something a construction crew left behind, but in White’s hands these raw materials are forced to yield a startlingly raw and primal wail.
He’s a cheeky bastard and, surprisingly, the most intellectual of the three. There’s a marvelous scene in which, being driven to the meeting, White shares his thoughts on what might come of it. “The three of us get together, what’s going to happen?” he muses. “Probably a fist fight.” Then he reveals his true motive for making the trip. “I plan to trick both of these guys. I’m going to trick them into teaching me their tricks.”
On the other end of the spectrum is The Edge (Dave Evans), lead guitarist for U2 and a complete freak for effects. One minute White is declaring technology “a destroyer of art and truth.” The next, we hear Page, in a respectful voiceover, confess his eagerness to discover how The Edge “layers his effects,” calling him “a sonic artist.”
Guggenheim takes the viewer to the unassuming warehouse that stores The Edge’s custom-made, computerized sound mixers and effects machines. Big as refrigerators and bedecked with zillions of switches and flashing lights, they look like something out of an old “Lost in Space” episode. The performer’s techie explains that every song in his repertoire has a specific set of effects and tones programmed for it, and none of them is ever reused. Just when White has you won over to his way of thinking, The Edge pushes a couple of buttons, sits down and somehow transforms his instrument into a heavenly choir. The point of the picture, it gradually dawns on you, is that both have a defensible point.
And then there’s the silver-maned Page, the grand old man of the culminating jam, looking regal and bemused. His presence is, to my mind, the most touching. He looks back on his years with the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin and recalls, more than anything, just how much fun it all was. (The director digs up fabulous archival footage of both bands and U2 — yes, Virginia, there was a time when Bono was a shameless Bowie wannabe.) There’s a remarkable grace and modesty about Page. He treats his new mates as equals and, picking up and plugging in to play with them, discusses the electric guitar in the context of his own mortality.
“There’s always that point that might happen to you when you’re too old to pick the guitar up ... and we’re just trying to keep that day far, far away and out of sight,” Page says. Hooking him up with younger blood this challenging and inspired probably added 10 years to the guy’s life. Who can say? He certainly appeared to enjoy the experience. My bet is that you, too, will find yourself enchanted and exhilarated by It Might Get Loud.
Spoiler alert: It does!