Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review: "It Might Get Loud"

Even if you're not a guitar junkie, there's enough cool riffs and insight into the musical lives of three legendary players in "It Might Get Loud" to interest even the nonfan.

Well, two and a half legends -- Jack White hasn't really been around long enough to cement his greatness like the other two axe-men, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and The Edge of U2. But give him time.

The three meet, for the first substantial time in their careers, at the behest of documentary director Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth." (This is the same Academy Award people keep mistakenly assigning to Al Gore.)

Of course, the film builds to an extended jam session featuring the trio. But most of their stories unfold separately, as Guggenheim accompanies them back to their musical roots, quite literally -- filming them as they visit the schools or houses or clubs where they first began to stroke chords.

(The Edge's real name is David Howell Evans, and I'm glad I never met him because I would not be able to control the impertinent urge to ask him if we became buddies, could I call him "The." But then, Jack White also uses a fake name and refers to his White Stripes bandmate, Meg White, as his sister when in fact she is his ex-wife.)

Page, White and The Edge are all considered rock-n-rollers, but their styles and tastes are rather dissimilar. Page is the old-school pro, who started out as a session player and then expanded his repertoire as his need for expression felt stifled. The Edge uses the newest computers, software and hardware to tweak his instruments' sound to match the notes in his head -- Page hits the bulls-eye when he calls him a "sonic architect."

White stands apart more from the other two, with his obsession with old-timey blues wails coupled with punk-era screeds of feedback and distortion. He prefers to use cheap, even damaged guitars because he relishes the authenticity of their imperfect sounds.

The movie starts with White constructing an ad-hoc guitar with some baling wire, bits of wood, nails and a Coca-Cola bottle. But when he hooks an amplifier up to it, its screaming siren is not unpleasant.

All three men make for entertaining guides into the ethos of the electric guitar. (They also play some acoustic, but it's clear they were born to amp.) White talks about growing up in 1980s Detroit where all the kids were into rap. The Edge laments rock's middle-age years of the late 1970s and early '80s, when the emphasis was on big hair and big, dumb chords.

"'Spinal Tap' was a movie I watched," he says. "I didn't laugh, I wept. It was too close to the truth."

In one of the more thrilling moments, The Edge uncovers some ancient cassette tapes and plays them, and discovers the iconic arpeggio that became U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name."

In addition to the solo interviews and group discussion/jam, Guggenheim also incorporates extensive concert footage of the three players -- a clip of White playing until his fingers literally bleed is unforgettable -- and of bands who influenced them. There are even some animated sections, and one loopy bit where White jams with a child actor portraying his 9-year-old self.

"It Might Get Loud" isn't a definitive history of the electric guitar, but a brisk and occasionally mesmerizing exploration of how these three players have used it to interpret their respective worlds.

3 stars

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