Monday, September 15, 2008


(USA 2008)
Directed by: Davis Guggenheim
Cast: Jimmy Page, The Edge, Jack White

So AC/DC's music has become a Wal-Mart exclusive, Dylan and McCartney sing only for Starbucks, and legions of teenagers are picking up guitars but are plugging them into gameports instead of stacked Marshall amps. Sure, it's hard to be a saint in the city, but it's just as hard not to be another sanctimonious boomer when one realizes that today's definition of "three chords and the truth" is a series of prefab joystick maneuvers. Look what they've done to my song, ma!

Thankfully, a documentary has come along just in time to celebrate what the late critic Lester Bangs coined as “the outburst of inchoate obnoxious noise” from Les Paul’s momentous creation, presented, after an exhaustive week of high art and noble, in glorious Dolby to all but drown out the rumbling of the subway tunnel directly under the Manulife Centre...

I'm not really a boomer--technically, I'm one of the original Gen-Xers (a label I initially detested but have come to miss now that it's been taken away from me), which makes me something akin to Burl Ives' "Mr. In-Between"--too young for the 60s renaissance, not quite old enough to have been immersed in the dogma of punk and thus tolerant of 70's cheese, and loathe to completely ridicule the 80s given that it provided the soundtrack of my teen-and-university years.

I suppose that's why I enjoyed It Might Get Loud so much (fyi--it does and gloriously)--it celebrates a certain old school “purity” without being nostalgic (well, a little) and didactic (which is a lot coming from the director of An Inconvenient Truth). Davis Guggenheim captures a meeting and jam session between three generations of rock-n-roll royalty, each an iconoclastic talent, eternal student of the art form, and master of his craft. Need I introduce Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge of U2, and Jack White of The White Stripes?

Their mojos were forged in wildly different generational and cultural factors: Page, of course, is the elder statesman of the trio, and arguably an entire musical genre unto himself. Here, nattily attired and silver mane'd, he waxes romantically on his musical influences as he pulls nuggets from his floor-to-ceiling shelves of vintage vinyl LPs (he lovingly air guitars to Link Ray's "Rumble"), revisits the halls of Headly Grange where Led Zeppelin IV (and most notably, "Stairway To Heaven") was recorded, expands on the real reasons behind his signature inventions (the double neck, for example), and unveils some rare archival television recordings of himself as a 14 year old guitar prodigy named "James" who fronted an accomplished skiffle band.

The Edge, aka David Evans, hails from a generation that in many ways was a response to the excesses of Page and his brethren who pioneered "heavy metal", "progressive rock" and multi-disc concept albums. Since these days U2 sells everything from iPods to global consciousness, it's easy to forget that the band began as a quartet of DIY wannabees, and the Edge still wears his post-punk pedigree with pride. In Dublin, The Edge pulls out the original four-track rehearsals of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, reveals the techniques behind all those foot pedals and digital delays, and tours his old high school, right to the precise spot where he first noticed the ad posted that would unite him with Paul “Bono” Thewson, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullens, Jr.

Jack White has yet to achieve the iconic status of the others, but no one can dispute his range and passion. As frontman to The White Stripes and sometime member of The Raconteurs (and now a film composer, having written the theme for the upcoming new Bond sequel), White's a hybrid of both sensibilities: a Detroit punker obsessed with analog effects and retrofitting old instruments—his one-man rebellion against the electronica deluge and AOR bombast of the 80s. In the opening scene, he fashions an instrument from a block of wood, a Coke bottle, a guitar string, and a thrift shop speaker. "See, you don't even need a guitar". From his home in Tennessee, while interacting with an identically clad child (who resembles a Damon Runynan version of “Mini Me”), White cites the raw style of bluesman Son House as his musical inspiration. Revisiting his Detroit haunts, White admits nearly joining a seminary, tours his former upholstery company, and reveals his rare debut album, recorded with a business partner.

But the biggest kick is the free form chat and jam session on an LA soundstage in which they exchange secrets, gossip, and riffs--Page is impressed by the chord work on White's "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground", and marvels at The Edge’s pedal effects. All three get to trade slide guitar licks on Led Zeppelin's "In My Time Of Dying", a moment that despite being staged (and slickly lensed by DOPs Guillermo Navarro and Erich Roland), comes off as intimate, genuine, and definitely infectious.

It's probably too late to pick up the guitar at my age--talk about an inconvenient truth...

©Robert J. Lewis 2008