Last night, we caught a special-invite early screening of It Might Get Loud — a “guitarist documentary” featuring Jimmy Page, Jack White and The Edge waxing philosophic about the electric axe. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, who captured Al Gore‘s Powerpoint presentation on film, this new doc aims to provide an insider’s look at the creative motivations of three of the most important rock guitarists of the last half-century.
Now, it takes some doing to make me NOT get nostalgic and/or excited about Jimmy Page — he is, for reasons too numerable to mention, my guitar “root guru,” to borrow a phrase from Tibetan Buddhism. I mean, I even bought this the other day.
Long before It Might Get Loud was conceived, I talked about how The Edge inspired the most significant evolution in the guitar’s sonic palette since Jimi Hendrix (and Dick Dale before him). Now, Edge isn’t much of a technician, but his creative use of digital delays and other outboard gear changed the game for every aspiring arena axeman to follow — from Jonny Greenwood to that guy in Coldplay who isn’t Chris Martin.
Over the years, I’ve slowly made my peace with Jack White, who I originally dismissed as a garage-rocker come-lately with a color-coded gimmick. I’ve subsequently come to see him as the torch-bearer for a certain kind of blues, that is, the crossroads variety. If you don’t know what I mean, I’m not gonna bother to explain it. Just understand that to my mind, this makes him something of a natural heir to Jimmy Page — although where White’s playing is brash and angry, JP’s is sensual, sloppy and occasionally ornate.
The movie’s centerpiece is something of a “guitar hero’s summit,” but nothing much happens when the three men are thrown together to talk about their vocation. Page is polite and engaged, White is pissy and distracted, and The Edge seems genuinely confused as to why he’s even there. Yes, they jam. To me, the only thing more annoying than a trip to Guitar Center (I buy my strings online, thank you very much) is hearing three guitarists play electric slide at the same time. I don’t care who the fuck they are.
The best part of the film is watching Jimmy Page groove along to an old 45 of Link Wray‘s “Rumble.” And we do get to see the aging wizard tour Headley Grange, the former English poorhouse that served as Led Zeppelin‘s remote recording facility for classic records like IV. Page talks excitedly about how they got John Bonham‘s drum sound on “When the Levee Breaks,” which is pretty cool (although I’ve heard the tale a zillion times before). Then you remember that this is supposed to be a film about guitars, not drums.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with the movie. There’s little in the way of focus, and Guggenheim is inept at teasing out the multitude of interesting tidbits that surely reside in the minds of these six-string Titans. I mean, I could give a one-man recitation of Jimmy Page’s musical history and it’d be more compelling. (Well, maybe not to my wife, who’s seen that show several times.)
If I was setting out to make a flick like this, I’d have dropped The Edge altogether (sorry dude), and concentrated on Page and White, who probably share many of the same dusty blues records. It might even have been good therapy for White, who clearly has a chip on his shoulder and could probably use some paternal advice from the now-grandfatherly Page. Instead we get a hodgepodge of career recaps and vague bits about “the creative spark.” The “Behind the Album” series that runs round-the-clock on VH1 Classics is frankly more rewarding. In fact, there’s an excellent entry on U2‘s The Joshua Tree that provides far greater insight into The Edge’s process. And if you want to know about Page, check out Mick Wall‘s recently-published Zep doorstop, or even Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician, Man.
Had I been entirely unfamiliar with these musicians, I’d have left the theater with only the fuzziest notions about why they’re considered so important to rock ‘n’ roll music and the evolution of the electric guitar. Knowing what I know about them, I was equally disappointed about what was missing. This is a failure of documentary filmmaking on several levels.
On the bright side, I’m listening to Zep’s Physical Graffiti today, but not because of the movie. An old friend (coincidentally) e-mailed me about the late teenage nights we spent poring over every lick on the record. And that, dear readers, is what it’s all about.