Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mighty and Loud Guitar(ists)

Last night I took my teenage daughter to see the much anticipated and greatly hyped documentary film It Might Get Loud.

As even casual fans of music probably know, it’s the story of the guitar told through the voices and experiences of three rock icons: Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin), The Edge (of U2) and Jack White (of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather … and, wait, has he come up with any other bands in the last 10 minutes?). Besides having distinctive styles and being marquee “guitar heroes” in their own right, these men are roughly 15 years apart in age – from the 65-year-old Page to the 30-something White. Thus, they represent three generations of rock music.

Like dad, like daughter … both of us are fans of all three musicians.

As director Davis Guggenheim says in the movie promos, it’s “wall to wall music” and “great stories” with these “rock stars actually telling you how they did their stuff.” While certainly appealing to guitar geeks, it never gets too technical or musically esoteric. If you like rock music at all, you’ll find it entertaining.

The film is built around a guitar “summit” at an L.A. soundstage, where the three guitarists are brought together (for the first time ever) to chat about their influences and techniques and do a little impromptu playing. They share some of their famous licks and do a bit of jamming. Each musician’s back story gets ample focus in interwoven individual segments that explore their musical evolutions and revisit some notable locales from their early years. The genuine enthusiasm each man exhibits when discussing his influences is contagious.

The juxtaposition of the three guitar slingers is a big part of what makes the film so interesting. While Page’s heyday was in the late ’60s and the ’70s, The Edge’s punk/new wave-inspired U2 of the late ’70s/early ’80s represented a reaction against the self-indulgent dinosaur rock of super groups like Zeppelin. Subsequently, the Edge carved out his niche based not on virtuoso playing, but on creative use of electronic effects. Then came Jack White in the late 1990s with his pronouncedly anti-technical approach to music, channeling Son House through raw electric instruments in the stripped down sound of the White Stripes. (One might recall that the first four Stripes albums were characteristically retro-sounding recordings made in all analog studios at a time when the rest of the music industry had gone full bore digital.)

Clearly, Page and White share more common ground in their mutual blues influences, leaving the Edge the odd man out at times. Despite his playing with B.B. King on “When Love Comes to Town” on U2’s 1988 Rattle and Hum album/movie, the Edge’s style really doesn’t have any blues roots. Nevertheless, this imbalance doesn’t undermine the shared respect and budding camaraderie evident among the musicians.

This is a richly detailed documentary. So even though I had seen many of the various promo clips floating around the internet before last night, I still found plenty of fresh footage to discover in the film itself. Without fear of completely spoiling it, here are a few of my favorite parts:

• Page playing air guitar (how ironic is that?!) while listening to Link Wray’s “The Rumble.”

• Snippets of two new pieces of music from Page.

• Much has been said in early reviews of the film about the moment when the Edge and White watch in awe as Page plays the iconic “Whole Lotta Love” riff. The delighted look on both of their faces is, indeed, priceless.

• The jam on Zep’s “In My Time of Dying” – with all three playing slide guitar (true to form – the individuality comes through again as each man wears the slide on a different finger).

• The Edge’s self-deprecating humor evidenced on several occasions during his individual segments.

• Page’s bemusement over the chord structure of “I Will Follow” as the Edge teaches it to the other two: “Are you sure about that?” he asks the composer.

• The three stars’ acoustic rendition of The Band’s “The Weight” during the film’s trail out sequence.

All these are things to look forward to – along with much more – if you haven’t seen it yet. Personally, I can’t wait to see it again when it’s released on DVD, probably sometime before Christmas.

I highly recommend this documentary if you [a] play guitar (it’s a must see), [b] like even one of these three musicians and his band, [c] are interested in how guitar-based music (i.e., most rock and roll) is constructed, or [d] you’re just a big fan of music in general.

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