[9 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They represent three generations of guitar godliness, axmen supreme who helped helm The Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin, U2, and The White Stripes straight to the top of the rock pops. Each one has their own distinct style - accomplished journeyman and heavy metal monster; excessive experimenter who relies on technology to fuel his musical imagination; confirmed bluesman who can’t make heads or tails out of this reliance on science to make a joyful noise. So when all three come together to discuss their stock and trade in Davis Guggenheim’s ambitious documentary It Might Get Loud, we except a sonic summit of Olympian proportions. What we get instead are three slight biographies followed by sequences that merely suggest what such a coming together could actually achieve.
For Guggenheim, superficial context is king. We get all the well known backstories - Page as a skiffle kid in ‘50s England; The Edge pairing up with Bono in school, both inspired by punk; White working out his retro demons on any guitar he could get his hands on (including a plastic model from Woolworths) - plus a scant few things we didn’t know. Perhaps the most compelling is the notion of the man responsible for “Stairway to Heaven”, the infamous double neck guitar, and some of rock’s greatest riffs working steadily as a session musician. Page apparently played on everything - movie scores, commercial jingles, syrupy pop hits, you name it. It’s amazing to watch his eyes light up as he speaks of this time, if only because he seems so laid back and detached during most of the movie. White is also compelling in his own insular way. His devotion to the past and it’s various idiosyncrasies is so deep and so dedicated that you actually question his sanity at certain points.
The Edge, sadly, lacks anything remotely similar, except his country of origin. The “troubles” in Ireland are only invoked once, and his words are mesmerizing. The rest of the time however is spent as U2’s sonic voice runs around his old rehearsal spaces, plugs into his massive set of synthesizers and effects peddles, and piddles around on his instrument. He seems like the odd man out, the competent professional with the slightest artistic flair floundering often in the wake of his band’s international mega-success. As he argues his need for technology, as he pulls out demo tapes showing how the opening of “Where the Streets Have No Name” was built layer by layer, he makes a good case for his way of thinking. But when White can pull out a crappy old toy guitar and make it sound like a hurricane, The Edge’s approach is almost laughable.
Indeed, the biggest fallacy that befalls It Might Get Loud is that it never really does. We get snippets of the trio playing “I Will Follow” or “In My Time of Dying”, but it all takes a backseat to Page’s explanation of recording Led Zeppelin VI, or White explaining where the trademark red and white Stripes motif came from. We want to hear these guys play together, to drop the façade of their famous gigs and show us why they love the guitar. Telling us is one thing. Showing us is quite another. We smile like school kids as Page plays a vintage 45 of one of his favorite songs - Link Wray’s “Rumble” - and strums his air guitar right along with it. We also get a kick out of Edge’s impromptu reading of a Ramones track. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. We have to wait until the end credits before a well-practiced jam of The Band’s “The Weight” takes place.
It’s at this moment, thrown away while the individual cast and crew names scroll up the screen, that It Might Get Loud illustrates what it could have been. Granted, there is really nothing wrong with the material as it is presented, but expectations come when you cast about names like Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White. Indeed, why no mention of the old man’s former brush with Satanism? How about the constant calls for a Zep reunion? Why has the Edge never ventured into solo album territory? How has U2 stayed together for over three decades? And what about the whole wife/sister thing with Meg? If the Raconteurs feature so prominently in the live footage, why no mention of them either? Indeed, perhaps the biggest sin committed by It Might Get Loud is being enamored of its own star status. Instead of making the trio earn its keep, Guggenheim plays shorthand sketch artist.
Like finally meeting your hero and finding him polite, erudite, and rather drab, this documentary promises fire and brimstone and can only deliver friendliness and brotherhood. We keep waiting for the eventual fireworks, the smoke screen strum of an overamplified guitar feeding back, linking three generations to the same sound that illustrates their connection faultlessly. Instead, we bear witness to a genial garden party, complete with roadies, tech aides, attitude, ambiguities, and lots and lots of missed opportunities. Maybe it’s in the casting. Perhaps another famed musician like Paul Weller, Mick Jones, Lindsey Buckingham, or Eddie Van Halen could have been tossed into the mix, livening things up with their unorthodox styles and sensibilities. For as many differences as they proclaim, Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White seem cut out of the same cloth. Even when they don’t particular agree on how to toe the rock and roll line, the end results seem awfully familiar. It does indeed get loud at times. Too bad it’s not consistently compelling.