There are many things to like about Davis Guggenheim’s nifty documentary on the electric guitar, It Might Get Loud. Sketched up in an engagingly loose fashion, it tosses three music legends of different eras and genres—Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White—together onto a stage in a vast warehouse and gets them to talk about guitars. And if they decide to jam together, so much the better.
But the real fun comes afterward, when you get to argue with your own companions about who should have been in the movie instead of The Edge.
Jimmy Page’s inclusion is unquestionable. Wearing a long black coat and ruffled white shirt sleeves, he juts out his lips in the manner of titanic arena rock gods everywhere, as he rips out beautifully elongated electric blues riffs that stutter and thrum like the very soul of rock. And there’s Jack White, hunched over his guitar like some hollow-eyed kid who spent too long at the same devil-haunted crossroads where Robert Johnson made his infamous deal, making his instrument howl with all the pain and joy of a hundred lost souls.
Nearby there’s The Edge, strumming away agreeably, but not fooling anybody that he has any interest in the true gutterspeak of rock and roll. It’s like a game of Which One of These Things Is Not Like the Other? writ large. But more on that later.
The film doesn’t make a very determined case, at least at first, and that’s as it should be. One can see Guggenheim dreaming up the film as a sort of rock-nerd “wouldn’t this be cool?” lark. To that end, he certainly delivers. The structure ambles, providing long set-up segments with each of the three musicians in their home spaces, traveling to the gig, messing with their guitars, chatting about tradecraft. It could seem indulgent, but if you’re the kind of viewer who appreciates seeing the stairwell in which Led Zeppelin recorded the booming drums for “When the Levee Breaks,” or getting a quick tour of The Edge’s NASA Control Room-esque set-up of effects tools, then it’s the perfect approach.
Like Guggenheim’s filmed Al Gore lecture, An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud benefits from his exposed beam style. We see the rails laid down for tracking shots. There is no attempt to gussy up the stage upon which the titans of rock converse. A more produced film, with artfully created montages on the history of the electric guitar, with cool animation, for instance, would have seemed like an academic exercise. Here, Jack White’s pronouncements on the primal wonder of old field hollers have to sink or swim on their own.
About the only artifice that Guggenheim allows is a neat little joke in the segments tracking White on his farm in Tennessee. As White drives around in an antique car or bangs away on an old piano, he spins theories on music to a kid dressed just like him (hat, bowtie, vest, dark tones; it’s all very precious and faux-1930s dandy, by way of Johnny Depp) and meant to represent White himself at age nine.
It Might Get Loud‘s take on the other musicians is more straight-forward. The Edge meanders about the Dublin school where U2 first got together, reminiscing about how crap music was at the time (Top of the Pops and all) and what a breath of fresh air the British music revolutionary cadres like The Clash and The Jam were.
The film presents a little more back story on Page, which is perfectly understandable, given that he practically grew up with rock and roll, starting out in a British skiffle band and becoming one of the industry’s most in-demand session men before many of those watching the film were even born. Page is also the most colorful of the lot, presenting a mellow and gentlemanly visage whether telling old war stories or (in one of the film’s most unexpectedly magical moments) air-guitaring along with an old Link Wray song.
There’s a good deal of shop talk among the three when they finally get together, comparing theories and instruments. White, the youngest and the one with the most to prove, is by far the talkiest, speaking at length on the advantages of primitivism in music (in summation: any innovation that makes producing music easier is to be avoided). Page smiles, throws in a few notes, and seems happy to be hanging out. The Edge nods along and doesn’t say much.
In theory, The Edge’s presence makes sense. Guggenheim is trying to present an informal history of the electric guitar by way of taking three very distinctive practitioners of its art, throwing them together and seeing what happens. All are household names to some degree or another, and represent different wings of the rock and roll house.
But whereas Page and White, with their love of early American rock and blues, approach music from a similarly roots-based conviction (you can picture them swapping rare vinyl from the Chess catalog like baseball cards), The Edge seems to come at music as more of a technician. Page and White are card-carrying members of the guitar god pantheon, ax-men who stand astride the stage and coax audiences into primal frenzies with sheets of distortion and gutbucket riffs. The Edge is a cooler creature, erecting sonic architecture that lifts and soars with U2’s pop anthems. He’s a musical virtuoso to be sure, but nobody’s expecting a face-melting solo from the guy. He’s odd man out in more ways than one.
This all becomes moot, though, when the three jam, beautifully. Though Guggenheim has a light touch throughout, he pulls back from what must have been a strong urge to let the three turn the film into an impromptu concert. But It Might Get Loud isn’t just some vanity piece for boomer rock fans (see Page play!). It asks how music gets made, and occasionally why. If the film doesn’t deliver an answer, it does offer moments—particularly as Page, White, and The Edge play along like they’re just friends hanging out for an afternoon with their guitars—that come closer to do so than just about any IMAX concert film or four-hour PBS history could.