BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — “Gentleman in the back?”
“Uh, yes,” said the rising journalist whose name I didn’t recognize. “Jack and Jimmy ... I think both of you have discussed creating solo albums in the not too distant future.” (They have? Did I miss a blog post?) “Having now played together, do you think you might guest on each other’s albums?”
That’s when Jack got off his best zinger of this mostly silly half-hour media mixer.
“I think Jimmy needs to practice a bit more first.”
Jimmy didn’t miss a beat: “Well, there you have it.”
So the next writer stood up, lobbing another unnecessary query: “Jack and Jimmy, how would you feel about forming a supergroup with the Edge?”
Jimmy, baffled, politely mocked: “We already did!”
It’s late morning on a Friday, and sitting on somewhat nervous display inside a posh conference room at the Beverly Hills Hilton are the Oscar winner and two guitar gods, one old, one new. Respectively: Davis Guggenheim, Jimmy Page and Jack White.
The six-string mavericks had met years ago. Jimmy, later on, when we had quieter time to visit: “I’ve seen Jack play, you know, with Meg, as the White Stripes. But my first visual contact was when he guested with Jeff Beck in London.” He turned to Jack: “So that’s really early on, innit?”
Jack: “Wasn’t much fun knowing you were there.”
They spent a good deal of time together again this particular week. Two nights earlier, the elder Hall of Famer sat smiling along the back wall at the Roxy watching the younger hotshot debut his electrifying third (and mightiest) band, the Dead Weather, a new supergroup that owes an enormous debt to the hammer of the gods Jimmy used to swing around in his old band.
And later this Friday night they would attend the premiere of their exceptional new documentary “It Might Get Loud” at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
For now, however, they were stuck here, tolerating a group of entertainment reporters before enduring a round of quickie chats, like the 13-minute conversation I had with them. It was a rare picture, these twin towers of rock, born decades apart yet now sitting side by side, the mystical forebear with silvery hair and steely eyes next to the straggly but stylish offspring who often seems to be of no discernible era.
To the right: the visionary from Led Zeppelin who at 65 now stands (alongside Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton) as one of few remaining masters to have emerged from rock’s first heavy period. In the middle: the very modern neotraditionalist, 34, who with his three bands (the White Stripes, then the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather) has done more than just about anyone in the past 25 years to place blues-rock into the consciousness of younger generations.
And to their right: Guggenheim, 46, aka Mr. Elisabeth Shue, the director who two years ago took home the Academy Award for best documentary for his cautionary Al Gore film “An Inconvenient Truth,” the fifth highest-grossing doc in history, behind “Earth,” “March of the Penguins” and two Michael Moore movies.
Guggenheim, you see, is the reason Page and White were even here patiently facing the press.
Setting out to capture some abstract yet revealing Zen truth about the allure and mystery of rock’s most iconic instrument, Guggenheim persuaded the two guitarists — along with the Edge, U2’s “sonic architect” as Page refers to him — to discuss their roots and craft, both independently and roundtable-style, for his fascinating new film, an instant must-see addition to the rock-flick canon.
“It Might Get Loud,” apart from the truth in advertising its title implies, is one of the most riveting musical experiences you’ll find at the movies these days, a 97-minute insider’s feast for passionate rock fans but also a snapshot education for both the upstart who doesn’t know Jimmy Page from Jimi Hendrix — and his granddad, who can’t pick out Jack White from a lineup of Jack Johnsons.
With well-selected archival footage kept to a minimum, the film focuses on personalized glimpses of each player’s creative development and relationship to their instrument. The insight and intimate access into the lives, learning curves and legacy of all three (though particularly Page) is simply remarkable.
Edge takes us into his kitchen to hear random demo cassettes of “Joshua Tree”-era riffs — and to the junior-high classroom where U2 met and formed. Page returns to Headley Grange, the legendary English manor where Zeppelin recorded much of what appeared from “Led Zeppelin III” (1970) to “Physical Graffiti” (1975).
For die-hards, there’s a goose bumps-inducing moment when Page walks into the mansion’s entry room and recalls, just as we hear the opening beats of “When the Levee Breaks,” that it was right there that John Bonham’s pounding, grinding drum groove was recorded. There’s also a wordless moment of infectious fun later on, when Page gets an old jolt of joy from spinning the 45 of Link Wray’s “Rumble.” Priceless stuff.
White is another case altogether. The chattiest and most opinionated of the bunch – “technology doesn’t do anything for creativity,” he says at the film’s outset, en route to a summit meeting with forebears who have long been big believers in such advances — the Detroit native appears somewhat in disguise, via a visual conceit that at times finds him showing the ropes to a child actor playing a younger version of himself.
It’s very, um, Jack White, as is the pre-title sequence, in which he builds a rudimentary amplified single-string gizmo (a diddley bow) on the spot, then proclaims: “Who needs a guitar?”
Yet, for all the panache in it, White’s act isn’t a put-on. His quiet, reflective response to hearing his favorite Son House record, for instance, speaks volumes about the movie’s chief topic: that ineffable thing that propels someone to pick up a guitar and play.
Which is exactly what all three giants do throughout “It Might Get Loud,” as their personal journeys are punctuated by scenes from a two-day soundstage discussion that quickly led to jamming: Edge teaches Page “I Will Follow” but he keeps wanting to add a chord change to it; White shows ‘em “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”; Page leaves his progeny beaming when he breaks into “Whole Lotta Love.” At one point Page pulls out the double-necked Gibson he used for “Stairway to Heaven”; as the end credits roll, they all grab acoustics and strum and sing “The Weight” by the Band.
“I wanted to make a film about the electric guitar” — that’s how Guggenheim succinctly put his ambition during my chat with him and his stars.
A different sort of film at that: “There are a lot of music documentaries that are about everything but what the artist actually does. They’re about car wrecks or overdoses, or they’re filled with platitudes, or they become encyclopedias: ‘On the third album they used this backing track.’ That becomes a technical survey, and you end up going very wide and very shallow.
“We thought, ‘Why not make this film much, much more personal?’ We were trying to get underneath the characters, and let them express themselves about something that is kind of a mystery.”
It’s that pitch that lured in such typically reserved and private figures. Guggenheim just decided “to not have anyone else talk. Let’s not have any music critics or rock historians or wives or band mates. Let’s let Jimmy, Jack and Edge tell the story.”
Page, notoriously guarded about Led Zeppelin’s legacy, was convinced over a cup of tea.
“I was rather nervous,” he admitted. “In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, but I don’t want to go straight up on camera.’ But it was almost as if Davis knew what I was thinking. He said, ‘The way I’d like to start it off is just by talking like we are now, but with a tape recorder around.’”
That approach of unfiltered commentary “brought the whole thing together for me” — and also provided an element of self-control.
“No self-respecting artist wants to give too much away,” White explains. “You have to be careful about it, because every time you open your mouth or play a note or say something, you’re leading somebody down a path, and sometimes that path is contradictory to what you’re really trying to accomplish. What was reassuring to me was Davis’ idea that there was no set plan ... ‘at 2:15 we will play this song together.’
“If it had been that way, I don’t think I’d have been interested. The audience can smell it when something’s scripted, and none of us really wanted that.”
To that end, there were no meetings before the roundtable scenes to avoid any prearranged stench. “We wanted to witness things as if the camera weren’t there,” White says, “which is hard to do, because once you put the camera in the room, you do kinda infiltrate and disrupt what could possibly happen. But I think doing this over a couple days, and Davis saying let’s really relax, we got to the point where we didn’t even notice they were around.”
Back at the news conference, several writers made much ado about “It Might Get Loud” coming in the wake of “Guitar Hero” mania — that perhaps the film is intended to remind people just what it takes to actually play the real thing.
White had the most to say about that: “I do know it’s depressing to have a label come and tell you that (‘Guitar Hero’) is how kids are finding and experiencing music now. That’s sad.” But the antidote to the underachieving goal of becoming a video game rock god, he says, isn’t this movie. “Take them to see live music — actually put them in a position where they can’t get away.”
If the film in any way counters the sensation of “Guitar Hero,” it wasn’t intended to do so. At its core, it’s merely a means to inspire future generations of six-stringers.
“Sometimes,” White concluded, “I think, God, there are so many instruments out there, so many different roads these kids could go down. But at the same time I think, well, you could at least try to get them into this one that’s extremely popular, this guitar, and then they could move on to some other things.
“My son will be crawling around and he’ll pluck on a guitar, and sometimes I just wish, God, I should just put a sitar in the living room or something. Just so, you know, he’s exposed to it. But then, that guitar path could lead anywhere.”
Look where it led these three.